Skip to main content

'Is it any wonder that British young people are among the unhappiest in the world?'

It's harder than it’s ever been for today’s young people to become contented and happy, writes the former government mental health tsar and campaigner

News article image

It's harder than it’s ever been for today’s young people to become contented and happy, writes the former government mental health tsar and campaigner

Sometimes I worry that I exist in a liberal silo.

My professional conversations are mainly with people who work in education, I have a subscription to the Guardian, my friends and family are predominantly left-wingers and online I both follow and am followed by like-minded people.

Everyone I interact with is hopping mad with the present government on both sides of the Atlantic and almost obsessively concerned with injecting some compassion back into the way society functions.

To counteract this silo effect, as I’m travelling around the country visiting schools, I try to chat to random people. Whether that’s the ticket inspector on the train, the cab driver who takes me to the school, the person behind the counter when I nip out for my lunchtime sandwich or the little old lady getting a cup of tea in Starbucks, one of my self-challenges is to strike up conversation with a broad cross-section of people.

In doing this, I hope I can protect myself from the sort of shock and dismay I felt when Brexit happened and Donald Trump was elected president of the US. It also helps me gauge the "average" attitude towards mental health.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a cab on the way to a conference and I asked my driver whether he thought it was harder for young people now than it was in the past.

“Is it heck,” was his response. “Kids today don’t know they’re born.”

I settled myself back for the inevitable "we had it tougher back in my day" style lecture that followed.

I encounter this type of response a lot – incredulity that the job I do, helping children and young people cope with the realities of modern life, is even necessary.

On the surface, I can see how the prevalence of iPhones and other modern conveniences, plus the apparent abundance of "stuff" that children and young people possess now, compared with previous generations, is a compelling argument for their increased happiness.

I’ve never been able to articulate what was henceforth an innate understanding that it is in some respects harder than it’s ever been for today’s young people to be contented, happy and to enjoy good mental health. That is, until this weekend, when I watched a documentary on Netflix called Happy.

The makers visited various communities of people all over the globe, including a tribe in Namibia who are the closest genetically to our shared ancestors; Japan; China; North and South America; and Denmark. They studied their lifestyle and moods to determine what was and wasn’t making them genuinely happy.

Scientists then crunched data from thousands of participants in a study that revealed the four components that are truly guaranteed to produce happiness in human beings.

*Spoiler alert*. According to this study, the four ingredients for happiness are:

  1. Time for play/leisure – particularly practising an activity that you can become more accomplished in, but for its own sake, not for financial or other gain.
  2. Challenging yourself to try new experiences and regularly changing your routines.
  3. A strong sense of community – feeling a sense of love and belonging as a result of being surrounded by supportive friends and family.
  4. Helping others.

The scientists also found that while the difference in levels of happiness between someone in the US who earned £5,000 per year and £50,000 per year was significant, the difference between someone who earned £50,000 and £50,000,000 was negligible.

Essentially, £50,000 is about how much you need to earn to not have to worry about paying your bills. Over and above the struggle to make ends meet, money doesn’t make you any happier.

Since Michael Gove became education secretary, physical education, arts, music and drama have been deprioritised and underfunded within the curriculum.

When the inevitable mental health crisis among young people followed, these activities were replaced by a "resilience agenda" and "character education".

Increasingly, children aren’t learning how to regularly incorporate activities that keep them happy and mentally well into their lives; instead they are sat behind a desk learning the theory (thus ensuring less variety in their school day).

The pressure on parents to work long hours and the increased emphasis on individualism means we are losing our sense of community. Many of us feel isolated and alone.

And the "life is tough, school should prepare you for a competitive workplace" motto I heard again and again during my time working with the DfE is hardly conducive to a "helping others" attitude.

It’s clear that a combination of technology, consumerist capitalism, individualism, a "hard work is akin to moral goodness" dogma and increased pressure to attain academic goals placed on pupils and teachers alike is robbing a generation of its happiness.

We’re also being sold a fundamental lie about what would make us happy in the future. While we are told that Britain is a meritocracy, if we work hard we will "do well" and this will ultimately buy us happiness, both parts of these arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Is it any wonder, then, that Britain, despite being a developed country, consistently emerges as one of the least happy countries in the world for children and young people?

The agenda is to encourage children to chase elusive and unfulfilling extrinsic goals from infancy, leaving them hollow, spiritually bereft and with sick, confused minds. 

Natasha Devon is founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team and former UK government mental health champion for schools. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back catalogue of articles

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you