This metric is just as important as countries’ rankings in math and science

You know what they say about all work and no play.
You know what they say about all work and no play.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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The OECD released its global education assessment index, known as PISA, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, and commentators predictably jumped on how countries compare in math, reading, and science.

While 15-year-old students from Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong ranked the highest in those subjects, they were sorely lacking in another key area: happiness.

Just two-thirds of Shanghai’s students feel a sense of belonging at school, compared to 81% in the US and a global average of 80%. Also, just 77% of pupils in Shanghai believe that other students like them,  which is well below the OECD average of 90%. In the US, 88% of students said they make friends easily and 86% said they don’t feel like an outsider among their peers—yet out of 65 countries, the US ranked a paltry 36th for math, only faring slightly better at reading and science, though no better than the OECD average.

South Korean students, who rank 5th in math and reading and 7th in science, are the least happy at school. The grueling school system in South Korea demands near-20 hour days from its pupils, and the country’s “education obsession,” which leads parents to spend up to 70% of their household expenditure on private education, has led to insurmountable debt and been linked to the country’s low birth and high suicide rates.

The happiest test-takers were in Indonesia and Peru, which claimed the bottom two spots on the OECD’s education ranking. Performance surely matters to an extent, but ignoring happiness is a mistake.

Last year in The Nation, Susan Engel asked: “Instead of measuring how many long division problems a child can solve in 30 minutes, why not measure something valuable, like happiness?” Schools force children “to spend lots of time ingesting information and practicing skills rather than creating work,” and they’ve also lengthened the school day “so that children can spend more time on learning. This practice may be good for test scores but it’s bad for children.”

Researchers have found that students who were happier and more satisfied with life were better at dealing with social situations, which are crucial for professional and personal success as an adult. Happy children are better at learning, earn higher grades in school, have better relationships with their teachers, and are more likely to participate in classroom and extra-curricular activities.

Indeed, David Hough, an education professor at Missouri State University, recently called happiness “the most overlooked factor of all.” Educators should look no further than economists who now view measures like well-being and satisfaction as important as GDP.