Schools traditionally teach children academic skills such as literacy, numeracy – they do not, however, teach skills for well-being– for more positive emotion, better relationships, more engagement, and more purpose and meaning. Although there is mounting evidence that such well-being can be taught to individuals (1), well-being is widely considered to be a private matter and there is skepticism that teaching it in school might waste valuable time, interfere with traditional academics, and divert valuable resources from academic subjects (2).
Recent data show that several non-cognitive assets (e.g., perseverance and self-control) contribute to academic achievement (3,4). Research has also increasingly suggested that under the right conditions, well-being and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive; rather, they may be mutually reinforcing (5). We taught well-being on a large scale to school children in Bhutan to assess whether teaching well-being increases academic achievement. We also investigated the mechanisms underlying the effects of well-being on student performance.
Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.
Interventions with the goal of increasing youth well-being in schools are likely more effective when they permeate all facets of an educational institution – students, teachers, staff, leadership, existing academic subjects, and extra-curricular activities (6). Bhutan provided such an enabling setting.
Bhutan is a small Himalayan country with fewer than one million inhabitants, and it uses Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess national progress and to drive public policy (7). The GNH index includes nine domains of progress: health, time use, education, cultural resilience, living standards, ecological diversity, good governance, community vitality, and psychological well-being. In line with this, Bhutan has organized its education system around the principles of GNH; the Bhutanese Ministry of Education’s explicit mission is to “Educate for Gross National Happiness.”
The GNH Curriculum Experiment.
The Bhutanese Ministry of Education invited us to develop a GNH Curriculum that targets ten non-academic “life skills” for secondary school students (grades 7 through 12):
– Mindfulness: calm awareness of thoughts, emotions, and surroundings
– Empathy: identifying what other individuals are feeling or thinking
– Self-awareness: understanding of personal talents, strengths, limitations, and goals
– Coping with emotions: identifying, understanding, and managing emotions
– Communication: being active and constructive in inter-personal communication
– Interpersonal relationships: fostering healthy interactions with friends and family
– Creative thinking: developing ideas that are novel and useful
– Critical thinking: conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information as a guide to beliefs and actions
– Decision making: choosing the best beliefs or action plans from available options
– Problem solving: accessing effective heuristics to solve theoretical and practical problems
The curriculum teaches these skills in a 15-month stand-alone course called Life Skills Training. The curriculum also incorporates these skills into existing academic subjects.
We tested two hypotheses: (1) Does the GNH Curriculum raise well-being? and, (2) Does increasing well-being improve academic performance?
The study used a nested cluster randomized design at the whole-school level in 18 Bhutanese secondary schools (8,385 students). We randomly assigned the schools to either the treatment group, which received the GNH Curriculum during 15 months, or to the control group, which received a placebo GNH Curriculum during the same 15 months.
The GNH Curriculum significantly increased student well-being.
– GNH Curriculum increased academic performance by more than .5 standard deviations
– Upward shift of 0.53 standard deviations in standardized exam performance (students who were performing at the 50th percentile before the intervention performed at the level of students in the 60th percentile after the 15-month intervention)
– No significant decrease in students’ performance in treatment schools 1 year after the intervention ended
– 3 factors revealed as the strongest mediators between well-being and increased standardized test scores: higher connectedness, more perseverance, and more engagement.
Our results indicate that the GNH Curriculum, designed to enhance student well-being, not only increased well-being, but it also substantially and significantly increased students’ performance on standardized tests (Cohen’s d = 0.53). Well-being and academic achievement seem not to be antagonistic, as some have suggested (8); on the contrary, increased well-being raised academic achievement.
Mediation analyses revealed three potential mechanisms through which the GNH intervention caused an increase in standardized test results. Perseverance was the strongest mediator, consistent with the existing psychological literature on self-discipline, grit, and academic achievement (10). Connectedness was the second strongest mediator between well-being and standardized test scores. Research suggests that having high-quality friendships, or at least one best friend, helps prevent children and adolescents from being bullied, a leading cause of social and emotional violence in schools (11). Further, positive teacher-student relationships play an important role in students’ resilience and academic performance (12–14).
Engagement was the third strongest mediator between well-being and standardized test scores. The literature on “flow” suggests that individuals experience this psychological state when they are using their core strengths, particularly when engaged in an activity aligned with their interests (15, 16). Heightened attention is an underlying mechanism of flow, and prior research has demonstrated that heightened attention leads to enhanced performance (17).
Our study has substantial limitations. First, we conducted this study in a country that is unique in many ways. Bhutan is a small, homogenous country, with a population of about 700,000 that is 95% Buddhist and ethnically uniform. More importantly, with its GNH development philosophy, Bhutan has, since the 1970s, embraced well-being as a public policy goal. So we do not know if our results are replicable in other nations or in settings that do not value well-being as highly. Secondly, the GNH Curriculum taught ten skills; we cannot identify which skills worked and which accounted for how much of the variance in well-being and in standardized test scores. Future experimental research will answer these empirical questions. We are currently collaborating with national and international organizations to conduct randomized control trials in seven countries. The results of these studies will reveal whether positive education is a feasible new global educational paradigm.