Ch. 11: Happiness, Success, and Academic Achievement

This chapter is adapted from an article on the website of Education for Life International (

Mainstream education, with its emphasis on test scores, emphasizes training just one of a student’s developmental tools, the intellect, at the expense of their potential for growth in other areas.

Education for Life (EFL) is based on helping students succeed academically and personally through balanced development of their five “Tools of Maturity” — Body, Feelings, Will, Mind, and Spirit.

Let’s compare the results of these two very different systems.

Education for Life and Testing

While Education for Life doesn’t emphasize academic testing for young children, our older students often express an interest in knowing how they are performing, compared to students their age in other schools.

When the original Living Wisdom High School applied for accreditation, the students were required to take a nationally recognized standardized test. The results were remarkable. The students placed in the top 10 percent of schools nationwide as a group, and over the next 10 years they scored consistently in the top 10 percent, placing in the top 1 percent one year.

Their SAT scores were equally impressive, averaging 1248 compared to the national average of roughly 1060. In recent years, an LWHS student earned a perfect score on the SATs.

Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores
  EFL Averages   National Averages
Language Arts        640        533
Mathematics        608        527
Total      1248      1060

How can EFL schools compete so well against elite academic schools, when the EFL students spend significant time on the arts, outdoor activities, service projects, and adventure travel?

Current research offers some insights.

The Body and the Intellect

Surely it’s obvious that disease, stress, and poor hygiene can erode the energy available for sustained mental performance in academics. This relationship was demonstrated in a 2013 study by the National Academy of Sciences:

State-mandated academic achievement testing has had the unintended consequence of reducing opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day and beyond…. Yet little evidence supports the notion that more time allocated to subject matter will translate into better test scores. Indeed, 11 of 14 correlational studies of physical activity during the school day demonstrate a positive relationship to academic performance. Overall, a rapidly growing body of work suggests that time spent engaged in physical activity is related not only to a healthier body but also to a healthier mind.

Feelings and the Intellect

Similarly, the ability to manage feelings constructively is a tremendous aid for maintaining calm mental focus in challenging circumstances.

The advent of “emotional intelligence” in 1995 stimulated a wave of research that authenticated the importance of social and emotional guidance.

A key survey by J. Payton, et al. examined data from 317 studies involving 324,303 students. The authors concluded:

SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] programming improved students’ academic performance by 11 to 17 percentile points across the three reviews, indicating that they offer students a practical educational benefit…. Although some educators argue against implementing this type of holistic programming because it takes valuable time away from core academic material, our findings suggest that SEL programming not only does not detract from academic performance but actually increases students’ performance on standardized tests and grades.

Will Power and the Intellect

The vital connection between will power and the intellect is evident in qualities such as perseverance, concentration, and personal initiative. In The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD surveyed the results of more than 200 studies in this area and concluded:

People who have strong will power are better off — i.e., [they have] better control of their attention, emotions, and actions. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They live longer. Self-control is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. It’s a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma. It’s more important for marital harmony than empathy.

Conclusion — and a Prediction

Widespread change always takes time, but educators are already acknowledging that too much one-sided emphasis on the intellect is counterproductive.

For more than fifty years Education for Life has pioneered an approach that cultivates the intellect without neglecting other important factors that contribute to students’ success in academics; namely, the body, feelings, will, and spirit.

The research tells us that the future of education will favor schools that can implement an integrated approach along the lines of Education for Life and the Living Wisdom Schools.

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