Founding Schools in Happiness

By Phil Mathe- Head of Student Opportunities at the British International School of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Begun in 2014 by UNESCO Bangkok, The Happy Schools Project (HSP) offers an alternative approach to improving learning experiences by prioritising school happiness. By focusing on well-being, engagement, and sense of belonging at school, the HSP helps foster a lifelong love of learning. The programme should be compulsory reading, for every school leader, at every level, who believes that happiness is a fundamental right and fundamental foundation for success within our schools. 

This article will explore why happiness should form the central part of a school’s mission, vision and policy creation in every school context.

Whenever new schools open, or transition, due to changes in leadership, management, ownership or just through the natural process of evolution in dynamic learning environments, there is an inevitable reflection on the values and mission that drives the school’s approach and subsequent journey. These processes focus on critical factors that determine the character and culture within a school. 

Finding that balance is often the most challenging job that Senior and Middle leaders have, as the resulting outcomes will determine the path that the school will take, and in turn will directly impact on cohorts of young people. Challenging in the day-to-day pressures of operating a well functioning, dynamic and unpredictable organisation. Despite the challenge, getting it wrong is simply never an option.

A school’s culture is often built around Academic Rigour and its Success, and Pastoral/Disciplinary effectiveness. In today’s well being aware world, the third and final option, should, in my opinion, always be the one schools choose. Schools need to place happiness at the very centre of every plan, policy, decision, mission, value and vision. Placing happiness, as a central pillar of how every school operates, is never the wrong option.

How happiness positively benefits our schools and students: 

  • Increased pupil motivation and academic achievement. Happy students are more likely to be motivated to learn and to achieve their goals. Happiness is associated with increased self-esteem, confidence, and resilience.
  • Improved social skills and relationships. Happy students are better able to build and maintain positive relationships with their peers and teachers. This is because happiness is associated with increased empathy, compassion, and understanding.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety. Happy students are less likely to experience stress and anxiety; happiness is associated with better coping mechanisms and a more positive outlook on life.
  • Improved overall health and wellbeing. Happy students are healthier and have a better overall sense of wellbeing. Happiness is associated with a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases.

(Mathe. 2022)

Happiness within schools is a complex concept that can be defined in many ways and is contextualised by individual schools. It generally refers to the overall contentment and positivity of students, teachers, and staff. A happy school is a place where people feel safe, supported, and valued. They feel like they belong, that their wellbeing is considered and they enjoy their time there.

Where should our focus should be when implementing a happiness first approach?

  1. Happiness is a unique and individual concept. What happiness is, varies from person to person and organisation to organisation. In order to focus on happiness, we need to know what it looks, feels and functions like within our own school.
  1. Happiness within schools requires all stakeholders to feel a sense of happiness within our buildings and programmes. It’s tempting to focus on one aspect, but the reality of interconnected happiness is that all parties need to feel that their environment provides the opportunity for happiness. 
  1. It’s different to well-being. Happiness is a state of mind that is characterised by positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction, and contentment, whilst wellbeing is a broader concept that encompasses a wide range of personal, organisational and socio-cultural factors that contribute to a person’s overall well being, such as physical health, mental health, social relationships, sense of belonging and financial security. Often, we interchange happiness and wellbeing as if they are the same thing, but they are not. 
  1. Happiness within schools is driven by a sense of belonging, being valued and supported. Happiness allows individuals to feel a sense of purpose and enjoyment within a school environment.

We talk a lot in schools today, about wellbeing, but far less about happiness, and yet, in our student body, happiness is far more important to an individual’s sense of belonging and success, as well as directly influential to academic outcomes and their general behavioural characteristics within the school environment. 

Research supports the notion that happiness drives academic achievement and behavioural standards

Data analysis from a study by The American University in the Emirates established that students throughout the UAE have high levels of happiness and as a result increased levels of academic success. Students’ happiness levels were found to directly correlate to their academic success (Moussa, 2022)

Lyubomirsky et al., 2005, investigated the causality relationship between happiness and success, showing that a subjective sense of wellbeing in students led to the perception of success across a wide range of lifestyle aspects including productivity, academic success, relationships and sense of belonging.

Arsenio & Loria, 2014; Liu et al., 2019; Saggino et al., 2017 all showed that negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, shame or perceived failure, all led to lower academic performance within students. The evidence is clear; If we can make our students feel happy, in whatever form that takes as individuals, they are more likely to achieve academically. A sense of happiness correlates with academic success and progress but what does research tell us about happiness and behaviour?

Using the work of Argyle (2001) Talebzadeh et al. (2011)  from the Azad University in Tehran carried out a study in school-age children, formulating the conclusion that a sense of happiness, formulated through a number of elements including joy, excitement, a sense of purpose and achievement as well as feelings of value and belonging, reduced instances of negative emotional occurrences. Happiness lead to reductions in negative behaviours.

Research into the correlation between perceived happiness and behaviour is far less voluminous than that of happiness and academic success however, as Phuong and Yasri (2023) point out, students that display higher levels of happiness within their schools also demonstrate characteristics that display a more positive motivation to their learning and their learning environments. Whilst this doesn’t directly show the correlation between happiness and behaviour, the suggestion is that a more positively motivated, socially secure student is far less likely to display characteristics we would perceive as behaviourally negative. Happy children, who want to be at school, and have positive interactions with their teachers and fellow pupils, are far less likely to display negative behavioural characteristics. 

So we know that happiness leads to positive attitudes, behaviours and motivations within schools, but how do we establish a foundational framework that fosters happiness at the centre of our provision? The context in which you work will ultimately determine what this process looks like and the final outcomes it leads to. 

Key considerations when reflecting on happiness as a core principle for our mission and vision:

  • Have ambition to create a positive school culture. Eliminate factors that can cause negativity. Think about how terminology, language, policy and procedures can impact on perceived happiness and in turn how we can frame everything in positive ways. Establish clear expectations for behaviour and consider restorative approaches to resolving behavioural problems. Ensure pupils understand consequence and accountability. 
  • Celebrate successes. Carefully craft a comprehensive celebratory system. Everything positive that our students do, needs to be recognised and rewarded appropriately. Celebrating success should permeate through everything that happens within our schools. Foster a culture of recognition, reward and celebration. View success as a chemical reaction of when good happens – the more we can cause this reaction, the more positive attitudes become. 
  • Make learning fun and engaging. Use a variety of teaching methods and activities that are relevant to students’ interests. Some learning lends itself to excitement and some doesn’t, so think about the tools that your teachers and students have at their disposal. Technology and its positive use breeds engagement, interest, vocational understanding and can create elementary excitement in every learning experience.
  • Think about the spaces and times between lessons. Learning happens everywhere – excitement and fun are not just limited to sports days and productions. Every moment of the school day should be filled with pleasure, music, activities and events. Give the students more than just a classroom experience. Flood their senses with learning in your Libraries, Drama Rooms, Music classrooms, sports fields, corridors and pathways. Everywhere needs to be somewhere. Give someone responsibility for these spaces, I have that role in my school. Create excitement, opportunities and positivity in every facet of your school.
  • Encourage creativity and innovation. Allows students to express themselves and to find their own unique path to success. Make sure that students’ learning pathways are individualised. Make sure they feel that their own needs, desires, abilities and successes are worthwhile, recognised and supported. Listen to them. Hear their voices. Let them tell you what they want, in a happiness focused school. Then give it to them.

In Summary

A schools’ vision and mission are directly linked to the outcomes that leaders and those accountable for implementing strategic intentions believe are important. If we believe that a positive school climate is important, then it is our responsibility to create one. If we believe that when students, teachers, and staff are happy, they are more likely to be respectful of each other and to work together effectively then we must strive to create an environment where this happens. If we can create a more positive and productive learning environment for everyone, happiness is an inevitable outcome. If you believe schools should be happy places, then put that at the very heart of everything you create, and watch the benefits flow.

Thanks for reading! 

Phil Mathe is Head of Student Opportunities at the British International School of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. He is also the author of the recently published book ‘Happiness Factories’, which can be found online here

To connect with him on LinkedIn, click here or twitter via @PhilMathe79_PE


Kasikci, Furkan and Ozhan, Metmet Bugra. (2021). Prediction of Academic Achievement and Happiness in Middle School Students: The Role of Social-Emotional Learning Skills. i.e.: inquiry in education: Vol. 13: Iss. 2, Article 15. 

Moussa NM, Ali WF. Exploring the Relationship Between Students’ Academic Success and Happiness Levels in the Higher Education Settings During the Lockdown Period of COVID-19. Psychol Rep. 2022 Apr;125(2):986-1010

Talebzadeh, Fatemeh & Samkan, Mahmoud. (2011). Happiness for our kids in schools: A conceptual model. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 29. 1462-1471.

Phuong, L. H., & Yasri, P. (2023). A Correlational Study of Happiness and Self Determination among Vietnamese Students Across Educational Levels. Education Quarterly Reviews, 6(1), 376-387.

Mathe, P. (2022) Happiness factories: A success-driven approach to Holistic Physical Education. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt. 

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2 thoughts on “<strong>Founding Schools in Happiness</strong>”

  1. Thanks Phil for taking the time to write about such a passionate and endearing subject. Happy Reading from all at Leading Your International School.

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