Forget Happiness. This Ancient Greek Concept May Matter More for Student Mental Health.

Many schools have accepted that students’ overall well-being is an integral part of what helps children and teens succeed academically — particularly in light of the negative consequences created or worsened by the pandemic — and are working to bolster student mental health.

But what if feeling happy isn’t as important for students, at least once they get to middle and high school, as feeling fulfilled and confident?

A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that students who have higher levels of eudaimonia (feeling a sense of competence and purpose in life) also perform better academically on English and math exams.

Tania Clarke, now working at a nonprofit for youth violence prevention, helmed the study while working on her doctoral degree in child and adolescent well-being.

“I think if there’s one thing that this project has highlighted, it’s the need to take more of a systemic look at our education system and the role that things like purpose and meaning play, and at different times, in children’s development,” says Clarke, senior evaluation manager at the Youth Endowment Fund.

Clarke was inspired to look into the topic by what she says was a controversial paper arguing that schools must make a choice between serving children’s academic needs and their well-being.

“The paper that was written by this education think tank was suggesting that, internationally, educators can’t focus on children’s well-being alongside academic attainment, and they kind of had the idea that those two aims are in opposition to one another,” Clarke says. “So I wanted to set out to investigate the extent to which that was true, especially if we take a full conception of what well-being is.”

In the study, Clarke breaks down overall well-being into two distinct aspects. Life satisfaction — or hedonia, as it’s also called in the study — refers generally to happiness.

But Clarke says that’s just half the picture. Eudaimonia, the other half of well-being, is how well people feel they are functioning. She says it includes concepts like fulfillment, self-confidence, and having a sense of purpose in life.

The concept of and philosophical debates on the nature of eudaimonia go back to the ancient Greeks, and Aristotle believed that reaching one’s full potential was key to eudaimonic well-being.

Researchers surveyed just over 600 students ages 14 to 15 from England about their feelings toward school and about themselves.

“We do find that for adolescents, the eudaimonic component of well-being is particularly salient for them, and I suppose that makes sense because they’re at a stage where they’re discovering what it means to be themselves, and their unique capabilities and competencies,” Clarke says. “So thinking about the role that school plays at that developmental stage is probably really important.”

Given the study’s findings that eudaimonia is correlated with students’ academic success, that suggests that any education system’s focus on bolstering student happiness over eudaimonia could be missing a more effective way to help students thrive in their studies.

Big Feelings

The importance of eudaimonia in students’ overall well-being has been under-researched, Clarke says, which was one of the reasons she undertook the study.

But the importance of young people striving to carve out their own identities continues to be an essential pillar of pop culture. The ’80s were a veritable renaissance of films about the teenage condition — a constant struggle to find yourself in a world where persnickety parents and cantankerous teachers seem bent on compelling teens to pretzel themselves into a pre-fashioned mold.

While schools are where students spend most of their waking hours, these environments become ancillary settings as youths journey toward self-actualization in coming-of-age stories.

The five teen characters of “The Breakfast Club” open up to each other over the course of Saturday detention, during which their principal demands they each write an essay on “who you think you are.” Peter Weir’s love letter to the humanities and quirky teachers is called “Dead Poets Society” — not “Standardized Test Prep Society.”

One reason that eudaimonia has been overlooked may be that helping young people find their purpose in life sounds like a complex, herculean endeavor. But that’s no reason to ignore it, Clarke says.

“I think what does a real disservice to young people is to focus only on the hedonic aspects,” she offers. “That runs the risk of concentrating on toxic positivity, almost that it is too simplistic an idea to just think, ‘Oh, well, you got to be happy in life.’”

As part of Clarke’s study, students were asked to complete the standardized “How I Feel About Myself and School” questionnaire. Statements related to eudaimonia asked them to rate statements about “feeling successful, confident, healthy, good about themselves, and capable of coping with challenges,” according to the report.

Life satisfaction statements measured them “feeling energetic, enthusiastic, that things are fun, and there is lots to look forward to, and not feeling bored.”

Students who reported high levels of eudaimonia also scored well in both English and math exams. On math exams in particular, the top scorers also rated their eudaimonia at 1.5 times higher than students with the lowest scores.

Researchers found no such correlation between academic performance and life satisfaction.

Interestingly, researchers found that girls scored higher academically but “significantly lower” in well-being and eudaimonia.

While the study found a positive relationship between eudaimonia and academic achievement, the question remains: Do those feelings of confidence lead to students doing well in school, or is it the other way around?

Clarke says that more research is needed before academics can say one variable causes the other. She stresses that her work is exploratory and has some limitations — like the gender of the student sample being skewed with not enough girls, nonbinary or transgender students represented.

Regardless, she advocates that schools start taking eudaimonia more seriously.

“Maybe in a crammed curriculum where teachers have got very little time,” she says, “perhaps it’s exactly what we need — to carve out some space for introspection and time to allow adolescents to reflect on their life as a whole.”

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