Does Academic Success come at the price of Happiness?

We have all heard of schools that elect to market themselves exclusively as being ‘happy’ as if that is the sole objective in life to which all other considerations should be subjugated.

As parents it should be an absolute given that we all want our children to be happy. Similarly, I have yet to encounter a school community which does not prioritise pupil well-being above all else. However, in an age obsessed with the notion that ‘happiness’ is a purchasable commodity, I would contend that young people are being sold an untruth. If happiness is the true elixir of life then why is it so elusive and indefinable?

The idea that happiness should, in itself, be our ultimate life goal is as unrealistic as it is unhelpful. We want young people to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that children are equipped to lead enriching personal lives and productive professional lives. We want children to be inspired and challenged so that they really do have the opportunity to realise their boundless potential. We want them to develop a lifelong love of learning so that they can perceive life’s infinite beauty with a vividness and clarity which encourages them to drink deeply from the cup of life. We want them to enjoy all that life has to offer but at the same time we know from our personal experiences that our children will face challenge and adversity. They will experience periods of elation but there will also be times when they may feel lost, alone or anxious. To feel these emotions is totally normal. If we lead children to believe that life is a halcyon Disney film then we do them a huge disservice. If we allow our children to swerve challenges and embrace the path of least resistance then we conspire with them in such a way that limits their true potential.

It is our duty to ensure that young people are superbly well-positioned to deal with periods of difficulty. How we respond when life is not a bed of roses is perhaps more important and more defining than how we respond when life is going our own way. Children will lead more contented lives if they develop the capacity to meet vicissitude with resilience and courage.

There are those who would argue that schools are either ‘academic’ or ‘happy’. This is, of course, a poorly contrived nonsense. Successful schools are inclusive communities within which all children are inspired to fulfill their potential by virtue of an outstanding quality of teaching and learning. Happiness is ethereal and transitory where as true contentment is dependent upon the knowledge and satisfaction which arises from a life well lived. Children at Rossall are intelligent, perceptive, kind and creative. They possess endless potential and all of them have the capacity to lead successful and productive professional lives. More importantly, I hope that they will all enjoy the joy and contentment that family and friends undoubtedly bring.

We should be ambitious for our children in every regard. That does not mean being ‘pushy’ or becoming an ‘exams factory’ but it does mean encouraging our children to have high aspirations and recognising the real virtue in striving to achieve. The tendency to label children as ‘not very academic’ or ‘gifted’ is, in itself, unhelpful. Such labels can breed complacency or despair. At the very least, such labels serve to implicitly deny the potential that we all possess to grow in every regard. They are labels which pertain to a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. All of our children possess extraordinary potential and their aspirations should never be limited by those who tell them what they cannot do. Rather, they deserve to be affirmed by our belief in their extraordinary uniqueness and their ability to do good things with their lives.

Truly joyous communities are those which are united by a common purpose but acknowledge the limitless potential of each individual. As parents and/or educators, there is no choice to be made between happiness and academic success. It is a false dichotomy which is both reductive and limiting, Without a degree of challenge and adversity, young people will not develop the resilience and courage to successfully manage their lives in adulthood. Realistically, feeling nervous, disappointed and frustrated are all authentic responses to everyday life. We do not help our children negotiate these emotions successfully by attempting to shield them from every scenario which has the potential to be challenging or unsettling. Rather, through our support, nurture and encouragement, we help them to incrementally develop resourcefulness.

Having said all of this, it is right that we focus increasingly on promoting Wellbeing and exploring what does make us happy. All too often PSHE lessons in Schools focus on what young people should not do in order to avoid disaster rather than what they should do in order to develop nurturing relationships and live happy lives. It is just that the path to true happiness is not dependent upon avoidance, lack of challenge and an inability to cope with change.

Wishing everyone a happy (or contented!) half term.