Why is happiness also criticized?

You may find it surprising to learn that positive pedagogy, happy child and happy childhood are concepts and terms that raise criticism among some researchers.  Why? you wonder. 

Positivity, and hence Positive Pedagogy, can be closely linked with happiness and with the idea that a child should always be happy. Kindergarten, school, and daily life at home shall all be filled with happy moments and fun activities, and it’s the duty of caregivers to make children happy and cheerful. Joy, happiness and positivity are all good things, but according to research, if they become the ultimate goals of life, learning and being, we start to go wrong. 


The Critique of Overemphasizing Happiness in Education

HEI Schools co-founder, Professor Lipponen and his research team write that “especially many Western societies uphold the idea that childhood should be a time of happiness. The child must be happy, playful, and carefree—joy has become the normative trademark of childhood.  Some researchers conclude that more generally, positivity and happiness appear to be a foundational moral duty in the West today. When happiness becomes a goal, unhappiness is to be avoided, and we become increasingly reluctant to accept grief or unhappiness as part of our lives.”

Peter N Stearns research article in Frontiers in Psychology looks also into the concept of childhood happiness.  The writer explores the rise of happiness demand since the 1800s and how it has become a norm, something that is as natural as breathing, in modern developed societies especially.  “American parents greatly value children’s happiness, citing it well above other possible priorities. This commitment to happiness, shared with parents in other Western societies but not elsewhere, is an important feature of popular emotional culture. But the commitment is also the product of modern history, emerging clearly only in the 19th century. 

One of the most pervasive beliefs about emotion, at least in American culture, is the idea that children should be happy and that childhood should be a happy, perhaps unusually happy, stage of life. There is little question that many parents are strongly guided by this standard, even though a variety of experts argue that they often go about it in the wrong way. And it is highly likely that many adults simply assume that childhood happiness is a natural connection. “

In summary, researchers are warning us that if happiness becomes the ultimate goal for childhood, we start to go wrong. The same applies to the school and kindergarten world, happiness should not be overemphasized over other emotions and should not be perceived as the main goal in learning. Research shows that when early learning is joyful and meaningful, it’s also effective. That said, learning moments can still include less joyful emotions; sadness for having to be separated from caregivers, frustration when things don’t go as wanted, jealousy over a toy, shame for misbehaving, and embarrassment in front of friends. 

Learning to tolerate negative feelings and understanding that they are part of life, is an important life skill.  Especially when children grow, learning requires perseverance and ability to tolerate some discomfort in order to achieve bigger goals. The same applies to life in general, there will be moments which are tough, challenging and sad, and it’s important that both children and adults have tools to cope with those feelings and moments. 


How can Positive Pedagogy be used to your advantage?

Where could the golden middle road exist between happiness and unhappiness in the educational context? This is where the positive pedagogy, perhaps more accurately characterized as supportive pedagogy, comes into play. Positive Pedagogy is a paradigm shift from traditional methods because traditional education often focuses on rote learning and discipline, potentially overlooking the individual's emotional and social needs. Positive Pedagogy emerged as a response, seeking to create a balanced educational experience that supports all aspects of a child's development, also the emotional development. It goes beyond acquiring knowledge and skills and puts emphasis on nurturing a learner's character, emotional intelligence, and social skills. It is rooted in the belief that education should be an act of love, providing a safe and encouraging environment for children to explore their full potential without any limitations or fears. By embracing a co-participatory approach, Positive Pedagogy empowers children to develop a sense of agency within a supportive social context, which is essential for their overall socio-emotional well-being. 


There is nothing wrong with being happy and desiring happiness. Still, it's important to recognize that unhappiness and sadness are normal parts of life. By accepting these feelings and reassuring children that it is okay to experience them, we, as educators and caregivers, provide the safety and comfort they need when learning how to cope with these emotions.


Positive pedagogy conclusion (1)At HEI Schools, we are deeply committed to incorporating Positive Pedagogy into every aspect of our core curriculum. We firmly believe that by embracing this approach, we can create a nurturing and empowering learning environment that fosters the holistic development of each child. Learn more about our curriculum and how it has been recognized and applied globally. 



PN. Happy Children: A Modern Emotional Commitment. Front Psychol. 2019 Sep 6;10:2025. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02025. PMID: 31555187; PMCID: PMC6742924.

Liu, C., Solis, S. L., Jensen, H., Hopkins, E. J., Neale, D., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Neuroscience and learning through play: a review of the evidence (research summary). The LEGO Foundation, DK.

Jennifer M. Zosh, Brenna Hassinger-Das & Margaret Laurie (2022), Learning Through Play and the Development of Holistic Skills Across Childhood,The LEGO Foundation, DK.

Learning through play harnesses five characteristics of deeper learning experiences (Zosh et al., 2017b) Adults have an important role in supporting learning through play (Jensen et al., 2019)

Building on the positive in children's lives: a co-participatory study on the social construction of children's sense of agency
Kristiina Kumpulainen,Lasse Lipponen,Jaakko Hilppö &Anna Mikkola

Pages 211-229 | Received 31 Dec 2012, Accepted 18 Feb 2013, Published online: 05 Apr 2013