Lifelong learning as a path to happiness?

Sung Lee Korea
Action Learning Association
South Korea



Abstract – This study shows the relationship between lifelong learning and the happiness of lifelong learning programme participants using the HILL (Happiness index of lifelong learning) developed in S. Korea in 2014. The result shows that people with more experience in lifelong learning showed a higher HILL score than those with less experience. We can also see that people who have participated in a lifelong learning programme for a long time scored higher on the HILL than those with a short participation period. This implies lifelong learning can influence happiness. 

Can lifelong learning make you happy? If you think the answer is yes, how could you prove it? If you take a look at most business training programmes you will notice that they usually focus on enhancing competencies aimed at achieving an increased performance of the company. On the other hand, the objectives of lifelong learning focus on enhancing individual empowerment, social inclusion, economic and cultural prosperity. UNESCO’s four purposes of lifelong learning – learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together – are the basis of these lifelong learning objectives. Thus, even though experts and practitioners try to prove the effects of lifelong learning programmes, it is not easy to get concrete figures compared to an enterprise.

The majority of the lifelong learning practitioners in Korea use the reaction of learners and their plans to take action as a measurement for a learning programme outcome. However, it is not enough to persuade stakeholders to enthusiastically get involved in lifelong learning efforts. The stakeholders may also have interests in seeing the actual changes made by the learning programme effects.

The purposes of learning programmes of enterprises and lifelong learning fields are apparently different from the beginning. Therefore, the methods used to measure the results of lifelong learning programmes should be something different from those of enterprises. There are two reasons for this. To measure the monetary value of the lifelong learning programme results is impossible. Even more important is to understand that the purposes of learning programmes are originally focused on generating something which is subjectively valuable.

As a result, we have to find alternative approaches to measure the outcomes, based on the purposes and the objectives of lifelong learning programmes. Vaillant’s study (2003) gives us a clue, in which he reported that lifelong learning is one of the seven conditions of happiness. This study was conducted for 72 years with 268 individuals. The result provides a kind of foundation to develop the lifelong learning happiness index. In this article, I would like to share the experience of applying the happiness index of lifelong learning (HILL) as an alternative approach to measure the effects of lifelong learning programmes.

Relationship between subjective happiness in life and lifelong learning experiences

According to Wikipedia, happiness is defined as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being. Seligman (2004) asserts that happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasure. He emphasises that humans seem happiest when they have

  • Pleasure (tasty food, warm baths, etc.),
  • Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
  • Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
  • Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
  • Accomplishments (having realised tangible goals).

Seligman’s assertion about happiness is related to the purposes of lifelong learning defined by UNESCO. Learning to be is similar to pleasure, learning to know is close to meaning, learning to do comparable to accomplishments and learning to live together matches with relationships and engagement. Compared this way it is fair to state that the purposes of lifelong learning are somehow related to happiness.

Happiness as capital?

But wait, there is more. Schuller, Preston, Hammond, Brasset-Grundy, & Bynner (2004) utilised the concept “capital” to explain the results of lifelong learning. The first capital is human capital which is based on know-how and qualifications that enable an individual to participate in the economy and in society. The second capital is social capital formed by networks in which people actively participate, so that when they face a challenge they can fall back upon their social relations. The third is identity capital which comprises individual features such as self-confidence and internal control to support personal development (Schuller et al., 2004).

“Learning can strengthen the development of key skills, abilities and personal resources as well as reinforcing belief in the individual’s ability to deal with disadvantageous situations."

Education also helps individuals make well-reflected decisions on behaviours related to their health and happiness. Education enables access to individuals and groups with a similar and heterogeneous socio-economic background, encourages social cohesion and provides the possibility of social involvement (Kil, Motschilnig, & Thöne-Geyer, 2013). Some researchers also reported that the results of lifelong learning are satisfaction with life, active participation in society, social support and promotion of health (Field, 2009; Sabates & Hammond, 2008). Research in Canada reported that the longer participation in lifelong learning, the happier the elderly people are. They also revealed that the elderly learners with longer participation in lifelong learning have positive psychological satisfaction and a physically and socially healthy life. This study further implies that the results of lifelong learning are somehow related to the happiness of learners rather than to economic purposes (cited from Ko and Lee, 2014).

Learning can strengthen the development of key skills, abilities and personal resources as well as reinforcing belief in the individual’s ability to deal with disadvantageous situations.

Michalos (2008) clarifies the argument of the relationship between lifelong learning and happiness. Given these more robust definitions of “education”, “influences” and “happiness”, education has enormous influence on happiness (Michalos, 2008). Michalos asserted that formal education has no influence on happiness, however, when the concept of non-formal, and informal education is considered, education influences happiness.

Functional happiness

“Walking into the light”1 (2010) introduced the concept of “functional happiness” which is a state of well-being that exists, flourishes and is fostered in daily life. The model of functional happiness produced a functional happiness equation:

Self-generated inspiration + Decreased suffering = Increased happiness

Inspiration is a positive feeling of joy or elation. Self-generated inspiration quite literally means inspiration that we generate ourselves. There are three areas of focus within self-generated inspiration:

  1. development of self,
  2. life passions and
  3. dream goals.

Suffering is a pain or distress that acts as a strong inhibitor to our happiness. The reduction of suffering focuses on perceptive awareness, acceptance of truths and elimination of roadblocks. The equation states that happiness is directly proportionate to the level of inspiration and suffering in our lives. If we increase our inspiration, which assists in fostering happiness, and decrease our suffering, which impedes happiness, we will inevitably be happier. According to them, people can enhance self-generated inspiration by improving physical fitness, career-oriented pursuits, acquiring a new skill, creating a work of art, increasing knowledge of a subject matter, experiencing new cultures, helping others, competing in the Olympics, starting a business and living an inspired life. On the other hand, people can decrease the suffering by recognising the existence of stress, being grateful for your health, accepting responsibility for the consequences of your actions, coming to terms with the death of a loved one, conquering a fear and finding a new method for completing a previously impossible task (Walking into the light , 2010).

Through this equation we are able to enhance the happiness of people if we have lifelong learning programmes with learning objectives to increase inspiration and decrease suffering. Michalos’ study (1991) supports the positive relationship between lifelong learning and happiness. According to the study, a happy person is likely to have low levels of fear, hostility, tension, anxiety, guilt and anger; high degrees of energy, vitality and activity; a high level of self-esteem and an emotionally stable personality; a strong social orientation; healthy, satisfying, warm love and social relationships; an active lifestyle with meaningful work; and to be relatively optimistic, worry-free, present-oriented and well-directed. Fortunately, most of the lifelong learning programmes are focused on enhancing inspiration and decreasing suffering, which may imply that lifelong learning can enhance people’s happiness.

The components of the lifelong learning happiness index

The HILL was developed by Ko & Eun (2014) and then modified by Lee & Lee (2014) with 6,698 respondents. The happiness index of lifelong learning consists of 20 items including increasing self-esteem (7 items), satisfaction with personal development (5 items), reduction of negative emotions (4 items) and pursuing a meaningful and better life (4 items) as shown in Table 1.

The happiness index was utilised for the analysis, which was developed from a previous study conducted by Ko & Eun (2014) and modified by Lee & Lee. The equation for the index is as follow:

HILL = 2.6 X Increasing self-esteem + 2.5 X Satisfaction with personal development + 2.5 X Reduction of amount of negative emotions + 2.4 X Pursuing a meaningful and better life

Application of the happiness index of lifelong learning (HILL)

The data were collected from 7,725 responses in 27 cities and counties in Gyeong Gi Do province in 2015. ANOVA2 was utilised for the analysis of the data.

Table 2 shows the analysis results HILL scores by the lifelong learning experiences of the participants. There were statistically significant differences (F=20.631***) among the groups by the respondents’ participation experiences in lifelong learning programmes. The group with less than 1 year of participation experience in lifelong learning showed the lowest HILL score and it was statistically different from the other groups. The group with more than 5 years of participation experience showed a statistically higher score than the group of 1~2 years.

This implies, statistically, that people with more years of experience in lifelong learning programmes are happier than people with shorter experiences.

Happiness in the end?

I believe that education has colossal influence on happiness (Michalos, 2008). Increasing happiness for people is not simple or easy. One of the most important responsibilities of mayors, governors, and authorities is to enhance the happiness of their people. To this end they use various policies and resources. Unfortunately, authorities are more accustomed to paving roads, providing more public transportation, and soon. These efforts may enhance the convenience of city life but may not increase happiness.


“If we were to spend the same amount of money for economic development and for a lifelong learning programme, I can clearly say that lifelong learning will tremendously increase the happiness of people."

If we compare the budgets for economic policies and lifelong learning programmes in one city, it is clear most ofthe money is allocated to economic policies. If we were to spend the same amount of money for economic development and for a lifelong learning programme, I can clearly say that lifelong learning will tremendously increase the happiness of people. However, policy-makers usually invest huge amounts of money for economic development assuming that the efforts will make people happy. This is why we need a kind of measurement that can prove the value of learning in a way that policymakers prefer to accept. I think the happiness index is a very strong form. If it helps prove us right, there will be huge support from stakeholders. HILL can also be utilised to identify effective lifelong learning programmes, those which contribute more to enhancing the happiness of participants. In the end the practitioners will also be able to modify their lifelong learning programmes to raise the happiness level of the participants.


1 /
2 / ANOVA is an abbreviation of Analysis of Variance. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) is a collection of statistical models used to analyse the differences among group means and their associated procedures.


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Seligman, M.E.P. (2004): Can Happiness be Taught? Daedalus journal , Spring 2004.

Vaillant, G. E. (2003): Ageing Well, Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark, Harvard Study of Adult Development, Little Brown and Company.

About the author

Sung Lee was the president of GILL (Gyeong Gi Do Institute for Lifelong Learning) in South Korea from 2012 to 2015. He received his Masters in Rural Adult Education from Seoul National University and his Ph. D. in Education from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He was the Chair of the Association of Provincial Lifelong Learning Institute and Korea Action Learning Association.