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What kind of happiness?

At a conference for headteachers child psychologist Dr Carol Craig (chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Glasgow) warned that “young people were being encouraged to believe that the most important thing in life is whether they feel happy”. She argued that the exaggerated focus on building pupils self-esteem left adults overly afraid of criticising the children. “Parents no longer want to hear if their children have done anything wrong. This is the downside of the self-esteem agenda. The problem is that if you tell parents that it’s incredibly important that children feel good all the time, we will get people going out of their way to boost children’s self-esteem all the time”.  Dr Craig added that this lack of criticism gave rise to narcissism in the children which would leave them ill-equipped for forming lasting relationships. (The Observer, 15.03.09). This made me think about what we mean when we say ‘happiness’ and when we talk about a happy, or a good, life. The above seems to imply that many parents and other adults believe that being criticised (even in a constrictive, sensitive and appropriate manner) would somehow be incompatible with being happy. Is it the case that we in society today tacitly, or otherwise, subscribe to the idea that a happy life equals an uncomplicated life largely void of challenges?

In spite of objectively being among the best off in the world Swedish teens and young adults rank how they feel about themselves and their level of wellbeing comparatively low. When polled a relatively large number report that they suffer from anxiety, stress and unhappiness. One example is the WHO report ‘Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC)’ which is based on national studies of young people’s health and wellbeing. Some 40 countries participate in this study the aim of which is to “gain new insight into, and increase our understanding of young people's health and well-being, health behaviours and their social context” (here).  When asked to rank their life satisfaction Swedish children and teens scored significantly lower than the other Nordic countries. According to the national 2005/2006 report 43% of 15-16 year olds said that they felt down at least once a week (to be compared with 25% in 1985 for example). In the 2007 status report summary states that “Self-reported mental ill health – such as anxiety, worry, or anguish and continuous tiredness – has decreased to some degree in several population groups since the beginning of the 21st century, having previously shown an increasing trend for some years. In certain groups, however, mental ill health has continued to increase since the years of 2000–2001, in particular among young women.” (here). These results are echoed in others studies e.g. ‘MTV Wellbeing Study’ (here and here) which polled 5200 16-34 year olds in 14 countries on their own perceived sense of wellbeing. Although Swedes ended up high in the ranking overall it is interesting to note that only 27% said that they were happy (compare e.g. with Argentina 75%, Mexico 71% and Indonesia 62%).

These and other similar results have triggered a rather intense debate, both with regards to possible causes and the reliability of such findings, among Swedish politicians, journalist and the general public alike. Undoubtedly there are many complex factors at play here and no one explanation covers it all but a contributing factor might be an expectation that a good and successful life must not involve experiences like failure and disappointment.

This would, however, require an extremely sheltered existence and exclude a lot of the things that would be a part of a happy life. For most of us a good quality life is a life filled with experiences, encounters and interaction. But as we expose ourselves and introduce others into our lives we also become susceptible to disappointment, loss and so on. Evidently I don’t wish to imply that pain and suffering are good states in themselves nor that we ought to accept social injustice, poverty, violence and disease as a natural part of a human life. Quite to the contrary I would argue that we should work both on improving ourselves as well as society and promote happiness and wellbeing on a large scale. The point is rather that even if we are successful in this project it seems that in light of what we know about human nature and human co-existence a good life will be a bit of a mixed bag. In all likelihood it will involve anger, loss, failure, rejection, pain and disappointment but it will also offer pleasure, warmth, joy and success. One might come up against both the limitations of ourselves and the limitations of other people but the fact that we are human doesn’t mean that we cannot have good and happy lives.

Perhaps then the problem is not so much an exaggerated focus on happiness (if anything, to strive to be happy seems a fine and noble goal) but rather this narrow understanding of what type of experiences a happy human life could involve. 

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It’s certainly a possibility (and one of the difficulties with these kinds of studies) that what’s changing over time is not how Happy people are, but what they take “Happy” to mean. Not only over time, but from context to context (Part of the context of the 1985 study is that it’s 1985. Cornell realism has yet to happen, for instance!). It’s not only what I take “happy” to mean, but what I take the questioner to mean, or what sort of assessment the question calls for, or even what sort of reaction I expect from alerting people about my state of (un)happiness.
    As you say, there is a large set of factors, known and unknown, and it’s hard to assess which is the more critical one in the explanation of the decrease in reported happiness among swedish teenagers.

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