I have recently conducted research measuring happiness levels among Taiwanese university students, and from these findings I would like to recommend changes to government and education policies. Measuring happiness in life has become steadily more important in recent years as an indicator of just how people are subsisting and developing, with an eye toward future success and serenity.
Many governments and other institutions are measuring happiness in populations and correlating this with self-actualization, success and tranquility in life. Even Taiwan has explored these parameters, with the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics releasing the nation’s first Gross National Happiness index last year. This research found that Taiwanese had a “moderate” level of happiness.
However, what exactly is happiness? In addition to ostensible things like good feelings about life, satisfaction with friends, family and other relationships, excitement and fun, personal contentment and hope for the future, there are a few other important indicators to consider. External factors include material comforts and income; work satisfaction; vital community relations; decent governance; and access to education, arts and culture. More personal or internal factors include mental and physical health; rich values and religion; positive family experience; education; gender; and age.
Martin Seligman created the concept of PERMA to measure happiness, which refers to: Positive emotions; Engagement in life; Relationships; Meaning in life; and Accomplishments.
As this year’s UN World Happiness Report noted, the great thinkers and sages of world history have taught people that “material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness.”
I conducted my survey measuring happiness factors using an index survey created by the Happiness Alliance, a large happiness organization in the US. Students from four colleges completed the survey. The data was collected in spring and fall this year, with one multiple sample that initially included 35 students in my culture and communication class at National Taipei College of Business — now National Taipei University of Business (NTUB) — which was increased by 89 more students in a combined group from NTUB and Tamkang University near Taipei in the fall.
Additionally, there were samples from Chien Hsin University of Science and Technology, south of Taipei (26 students), and Shih Hsin University in Taipei (58 to 64 students). The “domains” measured in the research included: satisfaction with life; material wellbeing; governance; environment; community vitality; social support; access to education, arts and culture; mental wellbeing; health; time balance; and work.
In a somewhat disturbing turn, the results showed that the students were not very happy and they scored decidedly lower than worldwide averages on several measures. Interestingly and compellingly, the lowest scores were in the “community” category and the related “social support” category. The figures in the community domain are fully 21 to 30 points less than the total worldwide average, a difference of 40 to 57 percent lower. The social support figures are 7 to 15 percent lower.
To be sure, it is just such community involvement that is essential to a satisfying and contented life. That students are not experiencing this type of connection will sound strange to many, as Taiwan is a land with famously friendly people and student lives are immersed in fun activities with friends.
However, students appear to not be encountering this community involvement deeply. One possibility may be that students’ lives are in some senses remote from the communities around them, because they are too busy with schoolwork. A second possibility is that students are spending too much time solipsistically glued to their smartphones.
Schools can step in here and help students to engage locally, by creating programs such as service learning, which connect students to their peers and educators in meaningful ways, and also outward into the community. From this local base, we can reach out globally and encourage overseas volunteer work, which could create globalized communities. This community involvement would provide students with mature, responsible roles in their own neighborhoods, and from there into neighborhoods around the world.
At another very high and disturbing level, the results showed that students are feeling less than overall satisfaction with life. My groups had scores lower by 15 to 26 percent in satisfaction with life, and 4 to 13 percent lower in psychological wellbeing. The questions in these domains covered overall satisfaction with life, subjective wellbeing, worthwhile experience, interest in daily activities and optimism. This is thus an inclusive picture of students’ mental lives and just how much they like their existence.
Given that the scores came in so much lower than the world averages, there does appear to be something amiss in Taiwan. One step here could be for schools to instigate programs that show students how to be happier and more comfortable in life. There are probably any number of such programs that could be possible, from the very small — such as one plan that promises happiness simply by first, sitting silently for a few minutes each day; second, practicing gratitude and compassion in life; and third, performing small acts of kindness each day — to larger structured programs — the Pennsylvania: Positive Psychology Center, for example, offers syllabi that can be used in semester-long courses. Additionally, schools could become more involved with students’ families and contribute in this way.
Two other areas in which students scored lower than global averages were in perceptions of environment and governance. These are areas the central government could step in on, first of all by cleaning up the environment (but again, this is an area that schools could participate in, creating cleanup days and other environmental activities for students), and in general governance.
To be sure, there has been some social upheaval in the nation in recent months and years, and in some senses, young people have taken this problem into their own hands, with large student movements erupting across the country. It is difficult to tell if this will make a difference in the long run, but it is at least true that studies show that people who become active in politics — and enjoy their own freedoms and rights — are happier.
Results in the domain of education, arts and culture are also low. The findings are fairly substantial — 13 to 23 percent lower than global averages. This is also an area in which schools could step in and enrich students’ lives. Introductions to arts and cultural activities, out-of-school performances and museum trips, concerts, literature readings, plays, speeches, field trips, and an ongoing focus on local, national and global cultures would be of great value in schools.
In terms of education, teachers must commit themselves to new levels of excellence and student enjoyment, cooperation and response in their classes. To be sure, this is the highest aim for universities, and a new focus and obligation is needed.
We have looked at keys to overall happiness and life satisfaction for students, and these should be addressed by government and schools.
Happiness can be as simple as a “table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin” as Albert Einstein once said, or it can be a lot more, for there are “broader dynamics at play, involving many more countries and deeper trends, with potentially far-reaching implications for people’s lives, for social equity and for democratic governance at the local and global levels,” as last year’s UN Human Development Report says.
Yes, our task is at once local and global — glocal, as is said. Our job is to travel all the paths we can to create richness and greater happiness in all of our lives.
David Pendery is an assistant professor at National Taipei University of Business.
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