There is conflicting evidence on the impact of education on happiness. Some studies show that higher educational qualifications have a positive impact on life satisfaction, while others show a negative impact.
One reason for the conflicting findings is the indirect nature of some of the positive contributions that education makes to life satisfaction. For example, education may contribute to life satisfaction by enabling people to earn higher incomes. Such indirect contributions are disregarded when researchers attempt to estimate the impact of education on life satisfaction by using single equation regression analysis to disentangle the impact of education from other factors such as income.
Some recent research by Nattavudh Powdthavee, Warn Lekfuangfu and Mark Wooden has applied a structural equation model to Australian data to estimate both the direct and indirect effects of education. The authors found that the positive indirect impacts of education on life satisfaction outweigh its negative direct impact (i.e. holding other things equal). The strongest positive indirect effect is via income, followed by long-term health.
These findings may provide some comfort to the providers of educational services. They can claim that education tends to enable people to have happier lives because it makes them to become wealthier and remain healthier.
However, the findings also suggest that young people seeking life satisfaction might achieve that goal to a greater extent if they can remain healthy and find a path to wealth that does not involve a great deal of education.
Providers of education services might do better to argue that it is better to have a meaningful life rather than to have high levels of emotional well-being. Roy Baumeister has reported some research findings which suggest that although there is fairly high correlation between being happy and feeling that your life is meaningful, there are some important differences. For example, happiness is about the here and now, whereas meaningfulness seems to be more about assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story. It would be nice to think that education would help people to do that, but I have not seen that proposition tested against evidence.
Cartoon by Nicholson, originally published in "The Australian".
Providers of educational services may also be able to argue that the education experience itself is not the cause of unhappiness of educated people. A study by Michael Dockery, previously discussed on this blog, indicates that young people in Australia who experience higher education switch from having relatively high to relatively low levels of happiness (compared to others of the same age) at about the time they complete their degrees. There are several possible explanations for this, but the one I now favour is that young people compare themselves to a different reference group when they make the transition from higher education to work. When at university they are likely to compare their lifestyles to those of other members the undergraduate community, but after they gain employment they are more likely to compare their lifestyles with those of successful workmates.
If higher education tends to encourage people to compare their own achievements in life with those of other educated people, who tend to be high achievers, is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.