How is it defined?

Happiness is conceptualised as steady states of positive mood and feeling content with one’s life, rather than momentary emotion (Kern et al., 2016). Researcher Ed Diener (1984) coined the phrase ‘subjective well-being’ to describe the aspect of happiness that can be empirically measured. The OECD (2013) defines subjective well-being as ‘good mental states, including all of the various evaluations, positive and negative, that people make of their lives and the affective reactions of people to their experiences’. The Learning Bar’s framework on student engagement includes measures of social, institutional and intellectual engagement. Happiness sits under students’ social-emotional outcomes. The happiness measure is closely connected to both the optimism and academic self-concept measures. Combined, these three measures provide information about students’ self-perceptions of worth and positive emotions.

Why is it important?

  • Notions of subjective well-being or happiness have a long tradition as central elements of quality of life (OECD, 2013).
  • High subjective well-being (such as life satisfaction, absence of negative emotions, optimism, and positive emotions) causes better health and longevity (Diener & Chan, 2010).
  • Happiness is strongly connected to engagement and motivation. Enjoyment of learning motivates students to put forth greater effort; hope and pride can increase self-efficacy. Conversely, anxiety lessens students’ ability to problem-solve (Zakrzewski & Brunn, 2015).
  • Happiness in young people relates to better self-rated health and less engagement in risky behaviours (Kern at al., 2016).
  • Happiness makes up one of five positive characteristics in youth that Kern et al. (2016) believe will foster engagement, accomplishment, meaning, relationships and positive emotions in adulthood. The other four characteristics are engagement, perseverance, connectedness and optimism.
  • Positive emotion is identified by Seligman (2011) as one of five pillars that make-up the PERMA model of wellbeing. These five pillars are: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. PERMA defines well-being as ‘flourishing’ in these five pillars. How do we measure it? In the Tell Them From Me secondary school questionnaire, students respond to Likert questions about how they feel about certain things in their lives. The questions refer to statements such as ‘I am happy with life’, ‘I am proud of my life’, ‘I like who I am’ etc. The results are reported as the percentage of students with high, medium or low levels of happiness. Students with high levels of happiness are also described as students that ‘are mostly happy with their life’.

* This DOE custom measure was used in 2016 & 2017 only.

This briefing note is for a DOE custom well-being measure, and has been prepared by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.



Diener, E. (1984) Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542-575.

Diener, E., & Chan, M. Y. (2011). Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 3(1), 1-43.

Kern, M. L., Benson, L., Steinberg, E. A., & Steinberg, L. (2016). The EPOCH measure of adolescent well-being. Psychological Assessment, 28(5), 586-597. OCED (2013).

OECD guidelines of measuring subject well-being DOI:10.1787/9789264191655-en

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

Zakrzewski, V., & Brunn, P. (2015). Should Student Success Include Happiness? Greater Good Science Centre: Berkeley, CA.