The Happy Factor and the Dismal World of Work

Do Happier Students Work Harder?

When PDS high school students took the HSSSE (High School Survey of Student engagement) the results were astonishing. They outperformed their peers in other schools across the spectrum.

Our students reported high levels of involvement, feeling safe and supported, deep engagement in their work and feeling  positive about their school and classroom environment. And the margin of difference was significant especially in the areas of social and emotional connection – that sense of belonging and purpose.

This was a source of satisfaction – not complacency – because we know that happier children do better work, are more creative, have more positive energy and make better progress.

For some time we have used the tag: connect joy with learning because we intuitively know what neuroscience and psychology tell us: Feelings matter and at work and school they are deeply connected with mission, purpose, progress, ownership and engagement.

Can schools make people happy yes, no, sometimes, perhaps. But too many of us know from personal experience that they can sure make you miserable.

Pat Bassett- President of  NAIS – often counsels school leaders to hire happy people and take it from there.

There’s an interesting article in today’s NYTimes  about employees in the workplace and it paints a dismal picture.

The title is:

Do Happier People Work Harder?

And it’s by


Who are

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher, are the authors of “The Progress Principle.”

Read it for  its insights about the dismal world of work, why it matters and what can be done to change it.

It refers to:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do. And there’s no reason to think things will soon improve.

(Are classrooms and the lives of many children in them any different? The one difference I see is that small children are invariably bubbling over with eagerness to learn. For better or worse – and for whatever reasons – things do calm down on the excitement front as children get older. And sometimes of course it goes away altogether and there you have your unhappy person.)

I picked out a few of the key points and applied them polemically to school and to students.

I switched out workers and employees for children and students. replaced bonuses and incentives with grades, gold stars and test scores. And so on.

Doing that made the parallel case for meaningful work in schools where children connect what they do with what they want to learn. And where their progress in solving meaningful problems –  not bubble sheets – is celebrated not tested. And where satisfaction, productivity, engagement and creativity matter

So here’s my rewrite. I hope they don’t mind.

Do Happier Students Work Harder?

When children don’t care about their learning or their schools and teachers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their quality suffers.

Student  engagement is a key difference maker in productivity, creativity, and quality of work. Feeling bad at school leads to lower performance and poor results.

Research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on children’s creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Students are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure and testing enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that students perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

Of all the events that engage students at school,  the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.

As long as students experience their efforts as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work. This kind of rich inner work life improves performance, which further supports inner work life and learning — a positive spiral.

Progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like grades, gold stars and test scores.

The catalysts for improved learning, progress and engagement are student autonomy, sufficient resources and learning from problems.

School-age children spend more of their waking hours at school than anywhere else. School work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit. Promoting children’s well-being isn’t just ethical; it makes educational sense. Fostering positive inner lives sometimes requires schools and teachers to better articulate meaning in the work.  If those who lead and work in schools believe their mission is, in part, to support students’ everyday progress, we could end the disengagement crisis and, in the process, lift our students’ well-being and our education performance levels.


  1. What a thought. I wish the pursuit of happiness were more easily implemented, but it’s difficult with the funds allocated for education as well as the availability of work nowadays.

    Unrelatedly, do you accept guest posts for your blog? I would’ve emailed you but I can’t seem to find your contact info. Drop me a line at nataliehntr86 at gmail, thanks!

  2. Xavier Mayo:

    Hi Josie,I liked your post. I agree happier students do better in school. I think when you’re excited about going to school you’re interested ; instead of being bummed out when you have to go to school. Before I went to P.D.S I hated school. At P.D.S learning is fun and exciting because the teachers make class interesting, and I think I do better. I think the students at P.D.S feel the way I do about the school.
    Please visit our blog:


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