WASHINGTON — The good news: American high school students are generally satisfied with their lives. But many of their peers in other countries are happier.
Asked to rank their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10, American 15-year-olds gave an average mark of 7.4, according to a study conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which was released Wednesday.
American students scored close to the average of 7.3 among OECD’s 35 member countries. But students in some member countries are doing markedly better: an average Mexican high schooler rated life satisfaction at 8.2 out of 10. The Netherlands and Iceland had a level of 7.8 and Finland had 7.9. American students also reported higher levels of anxiety over tests, bullying or a feeling of not belonging at schools, compared with many of their peers.
What makes students feel good? According to the study, teacher and parental support, spending time with friends and being physically active make it more likely that a student will be satisfied with life. On the other hand, feeling anxiety over grades and spending too much time online are predictors of feeling dissatisfied. “In happy schools, teacher support — as perceived by students — tends to be much greater,” said Andreas Schleicher, one of the authors of the report.
Does studying hard mean being miserable? Not always. In China, Korea and Japan, for example, students score well on reading and math, but are less satisfied with life, according to the study. And then there’s Turkey, Greece or United Arab Emirates, where students scored poorly and aren’t too happy.
But the authors highlight the cases of Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland, where good grades and high spirits exist side by side.
“High learning outcomes don’t have to come at the expense of good life satisfaction,” Schleicher said.
There are also some gender differences. Feeling very satisfied with one’s life is more widespread among boys, while feeling low life satisfaction is more common among girls across most countries and cultures. Why that was the case was unclear from the report.
The 2015 study had a sample size of 540,000. Data were collected as part of the Program for International Student Assessment survey, or PISA, in 72 countries and are based on randomly sampled students who completed written tests and questionnaires. It was a pioneering international study that looked at student outcomes with a focus on their social and emotional well-being.
Tom Loveless, a fellow with the Brown Center on Education Policy with the Brookings Institution, was skeptical about the survey’s methodology when looking at U.S. high school students. He said that at the time of the study, most 15-year-old sophomores would have spent a little over a year in their current high school and thus their well-being could have been shaped by other factors.
“The characteristics that make up “well-being” may be well established by then and influenced by parents, peers, schools, and teachers— not to mention life experiences— prior to the 10th grade,” Loveless said.
Commenting on the study, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, lamented that American teenagers were found to be less happy than some of their peers from other countries and said the focus should be not on tests, but on building a supportive environment. She criticized the Trump administration for seeking to cut funding for after-school programs for low-income families.
“Countries and schools that do well fight the fixation on testing, focusing instead on children’s joy in and out of the classroom. They maintain a bully-free and inclusive environment, form partnerships with parents and community, and limit internet use,” Weingarten said in a statement. “This data debunks President Trump’s proposed federal funding cuts for programs like child nutrition, wraparound services in schools, school climate, and before- and after-school programs, and reaffirms why these programs have been funded for decades.”
On the bright side, Schleicher said there are a few easy steps parents can take to make their children more satisfied with life.
“Just talking with their children is something that relates positively to life outcomes; having dinner together,” Schleicher said. “These things are really simple for parents to do. They don’t require an academic degree, they don’t require hours of time.”