Education Feature Opinion

Should Not The Aim Of Life, Be An Aim In Education?

Why do we do what we do? What is it we hope to get out of what we do?
Illustration © Vinod Nair, 2019.

Being part of an educational institution in Malaysia means inadvertently subscribing to an Outcome-Based Educational philosophy (Mohayidin, 2008). “Outcome-based education (OBE) means clearly focusing and organising everything in an educational system around what is essential for all students to be able to do successfully at the end of their learning experience.” (Spady, 1994).

As such, all teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks are aligned to learning outcomes (LO), which are demonstrable activities that are measurable at the end of a learning experience. Learning outcomes are aligned to programme learning outcomes (PLO), which are aligned to the university aims and these in turn are aligned to the education ministry’s objectives.

In my observation of university aims or programme learning outcomes, I am often confronted with a glaring omission. A state of being some would argue is a skill, and a very important ingredient in life.

Most university aims or programme outcomes revolve around the need to nurture: knowledge, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, leadership skills, communication skills, reflective skills, ethics, creativity, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and so on. While these are all important, I fear we are overlooking the most important skillset, the skill to be happy. So how is this a skill and is it important and teachable? Isn’t it a by-product of an accomplishment or dependent upon outcomes that are not always within our control?

So let us first try and understand, what is happiness?

Happiness is a state of being. In its truest form it is independent of any person, object or craving. Therefore happiness is a self-sustaining concept and a learner that gradually becomes aware through reflective practice (metacognition) increases his or her mastery of self, paving the way towards happiness. Happiness is objectivity, it is detached but yet heavily involved, it is for all intents and purposes, the domain of a balanced and mindful mind. A happy and balanced person acts, whereas a person that is not, reacts.

It was Aristotle that stated, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” (a sentiment also shared by the Dalai Lama). It was Gautama the Buddha that posited mastery of moral action, concentration of mind and the development of wisdom or insight would eliminate suffering thereby achieving a form of happiness (that leads to enlightenment). Aristotle argues that happiness is the most important pursuit, while Gautama suggests a possible way to achieving it. Nell Nodding (2003) argues that, “Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.” Scientific studies have also revealed a significant correlation between happiness and academic success, “children higher in subjective well-being earn higher grades,” (Quinn & Duckworth, 2007). In 1972 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan declared, “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” The idea made waves in the international community and on the 9th of July 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development”, recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a universal aspiration embodying the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals. This has led to “increased efforts to measure countries’ levels of happiness and well-being through  global indices including the World Happiness Report and the Happy Planet Index.

Cases of depressive disorder (millions), by WHO Region. Note that the largest percentage is in South East Asian region. Illustration © Vinod Nair, 2019.

There is a documented increase in mental health illness in all age groups (WHO, 2017), but fastest among teens and young adults in the case of the US. Clinical depression has reached epidemic proportions in recent decades, it is widespread in classrooms and boardrooms, refugee camps and inner cities, farms and suburbs. According to the World Health Organization over 300 million are living with depression—an 18% rise between 2005 and 2015. Prolonged pressure and stresses associated in the competitive and demanding atmosphere of modern day education (Dunne, Sun, Nguyen, & Dixon, 2010) has also played a role in this increase. This can lead to negative effects like depression, anxiety, behavioural problems and youth suicide.

All the above highlights and underscores the need for happiness to be a central focus in all aspects of life including but not limited to education.

So why isn’t happiness, an important aim and skill, being considered as an outcome at the end of a learning experience? A cursory look at the Malaysian Qualifications Agency’s (MQA) nationally approved set criteria, which all Higher Educational Institution aims are aligned to, do not feature happiness as a domain. The following are the listed domains as of 2007: 1) Knowledge, 2) Practical Skills, 3) Social skills and responsibilities, 4) Values, attitudes and professionalism, 5) Communication, leadership and team skills, 6) Problem solving and scientific skills, 7) Information management and lifelong learning skills, and 8) Managerial and entrepreneurial skills. It is my firm belief that it is imperative for happiness to be included in the MQA’s list of domains, and as such in programme and institutional outcomes, as an aim and skill to be cultivated. Also, education should not only lead to happiness it should be a source of happiness. For this to happen curriculum at all levels must be designed with happiness in mind.

It is fundamental and necessary to make happiness an aim and skill to master in education. It is time we teach and learn with happiness in mind, in word and in deed. For this to happen there must be recognition and awareness among the powers that be.

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the constant pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness” — Albert Einstein


Dunne, M. P., Sun, J., Nguyen, N. D., Dixon, J. (2010). The influence of educational pressure on the mental health of adolescents in East Asia: Methods and tools for research. Journal of Sciences, 61, 109-122. Retrieved from:

Mohayidin, M. G. (2008). Implementation of Outcome-Based Education in Universiti Putra Malaysia: A Focus on Students’ Learning Outcomes
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Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and Education. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom. Retrieved from:

Quinn, P.D. & Duckworth, A. L. (2007, May). Happiness and academic achievement: Evidence for reciprocal causality. Poster session presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, Washington, DC. [Google Scholar]

Spady, W. G. (1994). Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Arlington Virginia: American Association of School Administrators. Retrieved from:

WHO, (2017). Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Retrieved from:;jsessionid=DEDF3A82DD8ECE4669F8333EFC295518?sequence=1