A few months ago the UN released it’s annual “2017 World Happiness Report” and it got me thinking about education and its role in promoting our happiness.

Happiness is a pretty elusive concept considering that it is such a central human experience. People around the world spend massive amounts of time and money chasing it. Countless products promise a path to happiness; books, seminars, and other self-improvement products and services make up an industry in the U.S. that is worth $10 billion dollars a year. There are even online courses like The Science of Happiness from the University of California Berkeley that promise to use the secrets of modern science to teach you how to be happier.

With all of this money and time spent trying to be happy, you might expect us to be the happiest humans in the history of the world, but that seems pretty far from the truth. This year’s World Happiness Report revealed that American happiness is in a clear and persistent decline. In fact, this trend is pronounced enough to warrant it’s very own chapter in the report.

This situation is truly puzzling. While per capita income in the US has increased threefold in the last five decades, no accompanying increase in happiness has resulted. In the last decade, with per capita income on the rise, happiness has markedly declined in the US, perhaps proving that old adage, you can’t buy happiness. In fact, according to Ruth Whipman, author of America the Anxious, our wild spending in pursuit of happiness is making us less happy!

So, if we can’t buy our way to happiness, then how can we get there? Positive psychologists are trying to address this issue and although they haven’t found any “miracle cure” for unhappiness, they have uncovered quite a few interesting things along the way. The two factors that seem to be most closely associated with happiness are having strong interpersonal relationships and having a sense of personal improvement and productivity.

To me, that describes the education system in a nutshell. Schools should be places where students develop strong interpersonal relationships and where they should always have a sense of constantly expanding their capabilities. While we usually focus on education as a means to economic or career advancement, it seems that it is also has the potential to be a key pathway to happiness. According to educational theorist Nel Noddings, “Happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.”

This idea is supported by a recent study led by Roy Bauermeister at Florida State University, aimed at understanding the relationship between happiness and meaningfulness. The study tested how thinking about and doing a whole host of activities affected how happy participants were and how meaningful they thought their lives were. Their results were largely in line with earlier studies but they had some findings that are particularly significant for those of us interested in education. They found that the act of thinking deeply made participants more happy and made them feel like their lives had more meaning. Since education is essentially all about thinking deeply, this sounds like a rousing endorsement of education as one of the keys to happiness.

It seems like a dream come true, right? For education to be good for your economic prospects and something that can make you happy at the same time? Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. The Bauermeister study also contained a much less happy finding: the expectation of having to do a lot of deep thinking made participants less happy. So, thinking deeply made people happier but thinking about thinking deeply made them more unhappy. This discrepancy was so pronounced that researchers made a point of commenting about how inaccurately people predicted their emotional reactions to deep thinking.

Unfortunately, this finding doesn’t give us any insight into why we are so bad at predicting our emotional responses or what we can do to combat it. Maybe it is an innate human response aimed at conserving energy and avoiding taxing work or maybe it is a learned response, the result of barriers faced in classrooms long since left behind. Hopefully science will address this issue in upcoming years but in the meantime, educators are the front lines for battling this type of ingrained disinclination towards deep thinking and helping their students realize the intellectual and emotional benefits of engaging with their education.

While there might not be anything educators can do to break down these internal barriers, this makes it doubly important that they focus on eliminating external barriers. Teachers cannot force students to engage, all they can do is try to make it as easy as possible for students to learn. That is why our team at Motivis Learning is focused on creating learning technology that eliminates the barriers that can further dissuade students from engaging with their education. Our Learning Management System (LMS) was designed to put the student at the center of the learning process. Our aim is to use the principles of Competency Based Education to help students interact with their education on their own terms. We focus on creating an environment for competency mastery with extensive feedback and individualized learning pathways which works to eliminate ambiguity so that every student understands what skills they are mastering, why those skills are important, and what areas still need improvement. In addition, Motivis has developed a Community Engagement System which ensures that interpersonal relationships, which are so vital to student happiness and success, remain a central part of education in the digital era.

Advocates of education have always focused on the long term benefits of a good education, particularly professional and financial success. Turns out that in addition to these important benefits, education could also be a pathway to happiness!