Child Mental Health Affects World ‘Happiness’ Ratings

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 24, 2015 2 min read
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Education researchers and policymakers spend a lot of time debating the best way to measure success. Is it good grades, top test scores, high school and college graduation, civic-oriented character? How about whether students are, you know, happy?

The 2015 World Happiness Report is out today, and as usual in recent international benchmarks, the United States is fine, if not exactly leading the pack. It ranked 15th out of 158 countries, above Brazil and Luxemborg but below Mexico and Finland. (It’s always Finland.) American happiness levels have fallen since the group’s last calculation in 2005-2007.

Across every country, children and youth under 19 are the happiest age group, though the report found that 10 percent of children and youth worldwide, or 220 million, suffer from mental health disorders, about half of which are anxiety-related. The report calls for more school and family support for children’s social-emotional development.

“The best predictor of whether a child will become a satisfied adult is not their academic achievement but their emotional health in childhood,” the authors noted.

“Every parent wants their child to be happy at school and to learn how to become a happy adult. Yet many schools do not see this as a primary objective of their institution,” the authors wrote. “There is no conflict between these objectives. In fact, the evidence is clear—if children are happier, that is also good for their intellectual development.”

How Do You Measure Happiness?

For each country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the same group that runs the Program for International Student Assessment), researchers from the Gallup World Poll surveyed 2,000 to 3,000 people from 2012 to 2014. Researchers asked both directly and indirectly about the participants’ joy, pride, pain, anger, and worry, and questioned them about their views of life’s meaning or purpose. The researchers also analyzed each people’s average happiness against potential reasons, including the country’s gross domestic product, healthy life expectancy at birth, social supports, freedom to make life choices, perceptions of systemic corruption, and generosity.

Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark had the happiest folks on the planet, while Syria, Burundi, and Togo had the unhappiest. The report found that four indicators—having someone to count on, generosity, freedom to make life choices and absence of corruption—accounted for more than half the differences seen between countries’ happiness levels and a baseline.

Chart: Child mental health differs across the globe. Source: 2015 World Happiness Report.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.