Research shows … happiness is key

Research out of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education juxtaposes two ideas: happiness and creativity.


Trying to define creativity is like trying to define comedy. But people try.

“Children need time for idleness, fun, and irrelevant interests,” the New York Times quotes Stanford researcher Emma Seppala as saying. “And as research shows CEOs currently value creativity higher than any other trait in the incoming workforce, it behooves you to let your kids relax and access their inner inventor.”

The article is entitled “Letting Happiness Flourish in the Classroom” and suggests that “happiness can be a rare beast in our classrooms, but we can create and protect learning conditions in which happiness can flourish,” writer Jessica Lahey tells us.

The article was published in March and has been sitting in my hopper ever since. The very idea that happiness and creativity go together is counterintuitive to begin with, and a research article published in June shows that many of the most creative humans who have ever lived were more creative when they weren’t happy—or at least when they were experiencing an increase in negative emotions, including sadness.

Quite frankly, I’m surprised the Times would publish an article that suggests happiness leads to creativity. It doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite is true: highly creative individuals tend to produce less creative, high-quality output whenever they’re feeling happy.

Furthermore, happiness for children comes from love, and that mostly comes from loved ones, not from teachers or our schools. I don’t want kids to be crying in our classrooms, but you’re not going to convince anyone they need a dose of happiness by suggesting, inaccurately, that it will boost their creativity.

When kids are successful in their pursuits and in fulfilling their dreams and the priorities they set for themselves, they’ll be happy. We can’t just push a button and tell them to be happy. When we as teachers (and parents) start worrying all the time about making kids “happy,” what we usually get is chaos. Kids need to eat their vegetables, for instance. They don’t have to be happy about it, but they do need to eat their vegetables. This will lead to a healthier lifespan, during which they will have a higher level of achievement and self-satisfaction. That’s what will make them happy.

Or what about homework? I know students aren’t happy they have to do homework. But they have to do it. If I were concerned merely with their happiness, I’d never assign homework. That may or may not be a good idea on its own merit, but don’t try to convince me that by not assigning homework, I’m enhancing my students’ creativity. It just ain’t so.

Now, I do believe we should teach children to overcome setbacks and rise to meet challenges. That way, they won’t build up anxiety over these things, and then we can praise them when they do overcome those setbacks or rise to those challenges. That love is what happiness is all about. How “creativity” got into the mix is a complete mystery to me.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.