By Lecia Bushak
An education not only leads to a better job and more money, but it pushes our minds to grow and be curious about the world. The more we know, the better off we are, right? That’s what researchers and psychologists have been touting for years — often noting that education is a predictor of mortality and health in most countries (people with college or grad school educations have been shown to live longer, healthier lives in general compared to people with a high school or no degree).
But a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that having an education may not, contrary to popular belief, ultimately lead to greater happiness. Researchers from Warwick Medical School found that all levels of educational accomplishment were associated with mental well-being, what the authors defined as “feeling good and functioning well,” or being happy and content.
Low educational attainment has been linked to mental illness in the past, but the researchers wanted to know if high educational attainment had the opposite effect — leading to improved mental well-being. They found this wasn’t always the case.
“These findings are quite controversial because we expected to find the socioeconomic factors that are associated with mental illness would also be correlated with mental wellbeing,” Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, an author of the study, said in the press release. “So if low educational attainment was strongly associated with mental illness, high educational attainment was strongly associated with mental illness, high educational attainment would be strongly connected to mental well-being. But that is not the case.”
Past research has pointed to what is now accepted as common sense: that a better education will lead to a higher-paying job, a cushier living situation in a safer neighborhood, and the time and freedom to engage in healthy lifestyles (expensive yoga classes or healthier foods). A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 25-year-olds with some college education in 1980 could be expected to live 54.4 years more on average, compared to 25-year-olds with high school degrees were expected to live 51.6 more years on average; this is possibly because people who are more educated have more money to pay for medical treatment, but also they make more informed decisions about lifestyle and taking care of themselves.
Other studies have shown that having more education leads to improved mental health later on in life. In addition to boosting cognitive function, it paves the way for an individual to pursue things they truly enjoy — and get into a mental “flow” when doing those things, as opposed to dead-end jobs that demand long hours, little pay, and physical strain.
But this new study aims to walk on untrodden territory in announcing that this isn’t always true — and anyone can attain mental well-being, in spite of education, income, and job. Of course, nothing is ever black and white, and more research is needed to better cement the notion of who will be happier, and why.
Source: Stewart-Brown S, Samaraweera C, Taggart F, Kandala N, Stranges S. “Socioeconomic gradients and mental health: implications for public health.” British Journal of Psychology, 2015.