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Are Happier Students Better Performers?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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While genetics and the environment have a significant influence on the way we manage happiness, we can train our brains to shift from negative to positive and increase happiness. The psychology behind this process is useful for teachers. The challenge is to develop cognitive strategies that assist students in recognizing thoughts and beliefs that make them unhappy – often called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) – and learning to reframe them into more positive thoughts (Sharp, 2006). 


The posting below looks at the effort to “rehumanise” learning and thereby contribute  to the happiness of students and in turn improve their academic performance. It is by  Shan Yahanpath* and Dr Shantha Yahanpath (** of the Sydney Business School - University of Wollongong, Sydney, Australia. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Are Happier Students Better Performers?



The relationship between happiness and work performance is well established (Yahanpath, 2012). Yet, understanding the impact of happiness on learning and students’ performance, especially in the world of “online learning” will remain a challenge.  Have we managed to increase the happiness factor with the proliferation of online learning or have we negated happiness by 'de-humanising the learning experience’? If so, what are the methods of “re-humanising” the learning process?

Re-humanising learning

In the process of changing from small personalised classrooms to online learning and large lecture theatres, we seem to have lost the touch and real impact of teaching. As a result, the learning experience has often become dry, boring and limited to subject matter - students are not happy. After all students are the clients of universities. An airline with the most modern fleet of aircraft would not be successful if their clients were not happy. Central to making clients happy is the customer service staff, the lecturers. There is a whole range of things an airline must do to make passengers feel happy and cared for. Likewise, universities will also have to decide which levers to pull in order to deliver “effective customer (student) care”.

The advent of MOOCs is a case in point; there are clear benefits for the student, offering useful revision techniques and easing the burden of study, but Rivard (2013), believes the mania surrounding MOOCs is dying off, mainly due to the common fear that they would replace face-to-face learning. Without the classroom, students would miss out on the opportunity to engage face-to-face with lecturers, and lecturers in turn, would miss the chance of enriching the student’s experience by offering high quality teaching and coaching. Even the greatest proponents of MOOCs like Sebastian Thrun, CEO of provider Udacity “believes that online education will not replace face-to-face education and neither is it supposed to” (Rivard, 2013). 

Against this background we see that face-to-face learning clearly has its place in ensuring that the student is receiving the care of the teaching staff and providing an opportunity to openly discuss their learning, which is vital for students’ happiness and satisfaction. Student involvement is a key element that leads to ultimate happiness and satisfaction of the student; he/she wants to feel part of the learning process.

Recognizing who and what make students happy or unhappy is also important. They could even be friends and relatives. Parental expectations and demands can often put pressure on students. It may have nothing to do with people but rather with other obstacles like financial problems and learning difficulties. Also, teachers should not underestimate their influence on students’ happiness and positive learning experience. A simple gesture from a teacher can inspire and make a student happy. Likewise, a negative remark can crumple confidence and motivation to learn. From our first author’s experience, a high profile academic (Lecturer A) taught an applied finance subject, and clearly said ‘I am a theorist’, which was not very encouraging for him considering he was undertaking an applied finance course to have the practical experience relevant to the business environment. On the other hand, the second author has used Q & A sessions prior to the exam to bring students into a “happy state”. Consequently, the results of some finance subjects were markedly improved. While the Q & A session helped students clarify issues relating to exam preparation, it also acted as a “stress absorber” prior to exams.

There are methodologies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that change the patterns of thought, behavior and emotions we can use to increase our happiness. With CBT you may not be able to change the world but you can change the way you respond to adverse events (Rait et al, 2010). And, that makes a world of difference for the student, when trying to improve academic performance. Can teachers change the way students react to challenges in life? What influence can teachers have? One example is the first author’s lecturer who showed concern when his marks were lower than usual for one subject. He asked him what had happened, and the first author stated he had been going through a tough time at work. Through this lecturer’s encouragement and understanding, he (first author) was allowed to do a supplementary exam and still achieve good marks.

Is the future of learning going back to the past?

While the decision of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, requiring Yahoo employees to “come to the office” has been criticized by some, there are many benefits of the “come to the office” strategy. (Guynn, 2013). Similar to the “sticky campus” approach of universities, corporations are also evaluating the benefits of back to the future strategies like Yahoo’s “come to the office” strategy.

The power of face-to-face interaction should not be underestimated. Interaction and working together is part of the human DNA. Interestingly, these are the attributes that most employers are looking for. Also, employers feel that the students are well short of the required standards in most of these areas, just like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer observed “there are so many things that the company and employees are missing out when employees do not come to the office” (Schrage, 2013).  Likewise, students may also miss out on similar things when they do not come to the campus. Problem solving, group work, creativity and social interaction are some of them. If teachers are to train and develop students to cater for the needs of the workforce, then, it is imperative that a “sticky campus” with keen engagement is a strategy worth considering. But it should be combined with developing teachers who not only teach the subject but take a holistic approach to educating, supporting and inspiring students (showing care for the student’s development). They have the dual role as educators and mentors for students.

Teacher as catalyst of happiness and hope

Simply put, if students become unhappy when others, including their teachers, are unhappy, then, they will be unhappy most of the time in their university education. Once students are trained to de-couple their happiness from other people’s anger or unhappiness, their happiness and satisfaction will improve. However, if the teacher is also happy and in a positive mindset, that will be a beneficial influence on the student, and this is likely to boost students’ academic performance.

Students need hope. As McDermott and Hastings (2000) observed hope is either both taught and learned – or not learned – and is often conditional, dependent on its vitality for who and what is involved in the troubling situation faced. Who is involved is important for several reasons; hope, like pessimism, fear and anger, is contagious (McDermott and Hastings 2000). Hope is a key driver of happiness and teachers can give hope to students by helping them to “choose behaviors that make them feel fully alive, competent and creative”, provided teachers themselves are happy and promote a positive learning experience (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

The concept of “sustainable happiness” introduced by Catherine O’Brien in 2005 is what tertiary institutions should aim to provide for their students. Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual well-being, without exploiting other people (O’Brien, 2010). In a student-teacher relationship, sustainable happiness is of paramount importance, as teachers must ensure that the student is happy by not exploiting him/her for their happiness and vice-versa. This notion of “sustainable happiness” furthermore emphasizes the importance of teachers in being holistic educators; they have the role of being “drivers of happiness” within tertiary institutions. In order to achieve sustainable happiness student-teacher communication should be open, honest and mutually beneficial.

Re-training thoughts – good and bad developments

Students are not just good or bad. They often have different abilities and continue to develop in the right or wrong direction. It is common today that as a result of severe stress and anxiety, youth and young adults may resort to violence, drugs and even in some cases, suicide. We have seen recently that young minds have been influenced by radical ideologies and they have unleashed their frustration on other human lives. Research undertaken in Australia highlights that many students have a low level of emotional resilience. The key to achieving a high level of emotional resilience is actually teaching emotional intelligence at the students’ place of study, whether that be a high school, technical college or university. Regulating emotions not only helps reduce the stress and anxiety, it has been proven to improve academic performance (Stark, 2014).

While genetics and the environment have a significant influence on the way we manage happiness, we can train our brains to shift from negative to positive and increase happiness. The psychology behind this process is useful for teachers. The challenge is to develop cognitive strategies that assist students in recognizing thoughts and beliefs that make them unhappy – often called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) – and learning to reframe them into more positive thoughts (Sharp, 2006). Even when others influence you with ANTS you should learn to stand tall to “preserve” your happiness. The process is a demanding one as it needs on-going practice. But the rewards can also be significant. Teachers can help students to be positive and motivated (Ames, 1990). For example, a student might complain about the marks received for an assignment. Rather than immediately rejecting the student’s claim, a clear explanation based on caring and coaching principles could help the student in learning and improving. Students may come to the teacher with negative thoughts/feelings but positive engagement and encouragement by the teacher will help the students transform their mindset, and be positive and motivated, keen to take on the next assessment task in the subject. This is what the Q & A sessions prior to the exam will do. They diffuse the built-up stress and clarify the students’ thoughts.

Plagiarism- A False Sense Happiness

By breaking the rules in education, students can derive what we call a “false sense of happiness”. Students may have copied their classmates’ assignments in order to avoid negative stress from assessment tasks and they are happy when they receive good marks. In some cases they may even get good marks for the assignments without learning much. However, the students often fail to reach the minimum marks required in the final exams and as a result may fail a subject. By taking a responsible approach to plagiarism, teachers could ensure that students do not pursue “false happiness”. This is an additional challenge for teachers in an era of “commercialized plagiarism” where assignments can be bought.

Teacher’s role beyond teaching

To be successful in a rapidly changing environment of online learning, teachers face demands and challenges beyond “just teaching”. To be successful educators, teachers will have to:

1.     Deliver a value-add  to  encourage students to come to the university- this may involve developing students’ emotional intelligence by being mentors;

2.     Design learning activities to capture the attention and increase the involvement of students;

3.     Engage students positively by identifying “stress points” that promote negativity. This is even more important for new students in general, and overseas students in particular;

4.     Challenge students with ideas, quizzes, examples and solutions beyond online material by using a “lectorial” approach to delivery;

5.     Inspire with knowledge, empathy and understanding;

6.     Provide an enriching and engaging learning experience;

7.     Nurture “sustainable happiness” within the teacher-student relationship;

The above list may look like much more than teaching but this is teaching in the new learning environment. This list is likely to be longer in future. Future of teaching will be much more than just teaching. The teacher will be a facilitator and more importantly, a mentor and coach.

Concluding comments

The importance of student happiness cannot be underestimated as a determining factor in academic performance, especially in the context of today’s universities. However, teachers can be empowered in their roles as holistic educators and become positive mentors for their students, providing understanding, empathy and encouragement.  This is vital in an effort to “rehumanise” learning, reversing the earlier mentioned trend and contributing to the happiness of students and in turn improving their academic performance. They must initiate a mutual sense of “sustainable happiness” between themselves and their students.  Furthermore, they can also train students in developing their emotional resilience. This should be given particular emphasis in this day and age, where students are increasingly vulnerable to the negative effects of boredom, stress and frustration in their university courses. So, teachers have an increasingly important role as contributors to student happiness.  It can be said that a truly happy student is likely to excel in his academic pursuit.





1.     Ames, C. A., (1990), Motivation: what teachers need to know, Teachers College Record, Volume 91, Number 3, Spring 1990.

2.     Guynn, J., (2013) Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer causes uproar with telecommutingban, Los Angeles Times Online 26 February 2013,


3.     McDermott, D., and Hastings, S., (2000), Children: Raising future hopes, cited in C. R Snyder (Ed.), Handbook of Hope: Theory, measures and applications, 185 – 199. San Diego: Academic.

4.     O’Brien, C., (2010), Sustainability, Happiness and Education, Journal of Sustainability Education, Volume 1, May 2010.

5.     Rait, S., Monsen, J.J., and Squires, G., (2010), Cognitive Behaviour Therapies and their implications for applied educational psychology practice, Educational Psychology in Practice, Vol. 26, Issue 2, 2010.

6.     Rivard, R. (2013), Beyond MOOC hype, Inside Higher Ed, July 9 2013,

7.     Schrage, M., (2013), Marissa Mayer is no fool, HBR Blog Network, Harvard Business Review, February 26, 2013

8.     Seligman, M. E. P., and Csikszentmihalyi, M., (2000), Positive psychology, American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

9.     Sharp, J., (2006), Examples of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), The Happiness Institute

10.   Stark, J., (2014), Schools must teach emotional resilience: study, The Sydney Morning Herald Online, 9 March 2014,

11.   Yahanpath, S. P., (2012), Happiness drives executive performance: who controls yoursFinancial Times, Sri Lanka, 22 February 2012,



*Shan P Yahanpath, MBA Student, Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong,

**Dr Shantha P Yahanpath, Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong,