A new study has found that completing a university degree leads to lower levels of happiness compared to those undertaking an apprenticeship or traineeship.
The study, by Curtin Business School Associate Professor Mike Dockery, challenges conventional thinking on the value of further education.
"This is a complete paradox. It is usually accepted that education enriches people’s lives and increases personal happiness," he said.
"The study found that university graduates were happier at school and while they were at university but after completing their degree their happiness declined. They were still happy, but no more so than their peers who did no study beyond Year 12.
"This is despite the fact that they generally face better job prospects and earn higher wages once they start working.
"In contrast, an apprenticeship or traineeship has a positive impact on happiness during the training period, with happiness continuing after completion."
The paper is based on data from the 1995 Year 9 cohort of the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) and tracked until they were 25-years-old.
Associate Professor Dockery offers possible explanations for the results.
"The time in school and while studying at university are particularly happy times for those who go on to gain a university degree, with their subsequent work and life experiences seeming to be not quite as good in relative terms," he said.
"In contrast, their peers who left school early or gained intermediate-level qualifications were not so happy at school and may find post-school training and the initial years in work to be relatively good times, and hence are more likely to report high levels of happiness."
Being aged between 23 and 25 years seems to be a critical turning point, where those who gain university qualifications switch from being relatively happy to being no happier than average for their cohort.
"The study confirms that the timing of this fall in subjective wellbeing is associated with the completion of a degree," he said.
"An important question is whether or not this trend continues beyond the age of 25 years, or whether it is just a temporary dip in happiness associated with early career experiences of university graduates."
The study also found that people with very low levels of educational attainment such as early school leavers were the least happy.
(Source: Curtin University of Technology: May 2010)