As we head towards 2020, there is an uncomfortable truth we have to face: no one in the UK seems very happy. On the face of it, this seems a problematic statement to unpick – happiness is after all a rather intangible and unscientific state of being and being happy is a responsibility we often place firmly on the individual themselves.
But let’s dig deeper. What is happiness? What makes us happy? Is it health? Is it wealth? Is it beauty? Is it to have goals we have some hope of achieving? Is it equality? Or fairness? Cleanliness? Safety? Does a belief in God make us happy? Does technology – or conversely, disconnecting from technology – make us happy? Do friends make us happy? Does family make us happy? Is the state of happiness having some or all of these things? Or is happiness entirely independent of these, and a mysterious thing that just happens sometimes, fleetingly and unpredictably, like solar eclipses, heatwaves or falling in love?
These are questions I’ve asked a lot over the last few years of mostly young people who fall into the Generation Z category (aged between 12 and 23). Being asked about happiness seems to confuse them more than just about anything else. It also provides very different answers depending on where you are. I have travelled for work in more than 40 countries over the last two years and I would argue that a powerful factor in the ‘are you happy?’ question is actually – particularly where young people are concerned – geography. Happiness in some countries seems to be both an art and a science and something they take very seriously indeed. In other countries – and I would include the UK in this – happiness is more akin to political correctness – a thing people have to pretend to take seriously, but in truth find a bit faddy, weird, or irritating and something only the really get privileged get to own. The education system, legal system and most governments take your feelings and wellbeing much more seriously if you happen to be well-off.
But let’s go back in time a little. About 18 months ago, I was at a conference about childhood wellbeing in the UK and I dared to suggest that we were massively failing young people in the happiness department. The statistics speak for themselves and make for fairly grim reading: three in five 16 to 25-year-olds are stressed and worried about the future, jobs and money, and one in four in the same age group feel ‘hopeless’, according to a Prince’s Trust Survey. The vast majority of young people in the UK have low to very low body image – something that is exacerbated by the fact that 90 per cent of them frequent social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat which feature a smorgasbord of heavily air-brushed beauties. And one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year, meaning mental health services are stretched beyond all capacity, unless you can afford to obtain them privately – another system that works much better for you if you have money.
A prominent figure at the conference whose job was policy-making in children’s wellbeing and mental health snapped at me that: “Happiness was an unrealistic and romantic notion and we should set realistic and obtainable goals for young people like success and resilience.” I was surprised at her statement, because I would argue not only are these things not mutually exclusive – but that they can-not exist without each other.
Let’s consider success. Some of the most ‘successful’ young people I know and have interviewed are the most stressed and unhappy – Annabelle, 17, who got 12 A*s at GCSEs and then spent the next two years in a clinic being treated for anorexia nervosa (ongoing); Trent, 18, who is preparing to go to Yale in the USA and has night terrors and obsessive-compulsive disorder and Katie, 15, who is an Olympic hopeful and self-harms and is stuck in a binge-purge cycle of eating. They represent just a tiny snapshot of the many thousands of successful but deeply unhappy young people in this country. This brings us to resilience. Without exception, every young person I’ve interviewed (in every country) said they felt most resilient (able to deal with life’s knocks, scrapes and challenges), when they were ‘happy’.
They might suggest a few quick fixes to reach this elusive state of happiness – likes on Instagram, supermodel lips or lots of cash, say – but this all comes with a rueful acknowledgment that these are either quick flashes of pleasure and ego or abstract concepts that may or may not make them happy in reality. After all, lots of rich, famous and beautiful people are very, very unhappy – and most young people know that.
But when you really press young people on times, things, people or places that actually, demonstrably make them happy, the answers get much more interesting. Their answers are all rooted in quite profound concepts I believe we are losing touch with in the UK: childhood, memory, freedom, self-realisation, unity, play and the luxury of time– concepts that lots of other countries are not only resolutely in touch with, but heavily invest in.
Consider these anecdotes of real happiness from the UK’s Gen Zs:
“The last time I remember being seriously happy was the last days of school – late primary school or early high-school before everyone got mad anxious. That last day of school when you had the whole summer stretching out ahead of you. Everyone would sign each other’s shirts and play rounders and it was hot and you’d have a water-fight and get into bare trouble with the teachers, but you could tell they weren’t that mad. Those were the best days.”
“Do you remember the summer when everyone was off school and no one had phones, and before parents started freaking about everything and arguing all the time – like if you went off for the day – and you just had these adventures doing nothing much? I can’t even remember how old I was then – maybe nine or ten? No one in my neighbourhood had much money – but it didn’t seem to matter. We were all happy then.” Frank, 23
“We went to the shittiest places on our school trips, and we’d all freak out the day before and have hysterics leaving our parents, sisters and goldfish the night before, but that was part of the fun. There was this sense we were all away together, and it didn’t matter what was going on at school or at home – everyone was sort of equal on those trips – it felt like we were play-acting what we hoped being an adult would be. Everyone was happy in the Isle Of White as crazy as that sounds.” Naima, 17
“I had a brilliant group of friends from ages 6 to 17 and all our parents were best friends too. It felt sort of like a commune. We’d spend holidays, Christmases and weekends all together. If you fell out with your parents, you could go to their house and vice-versa. It was great. Once we all grew up it started to drift and fall apart – just because it did, because life, you know? I never felt happier or safer than I did in those days.” Esther, 20
What is striking about these anecdotes (and the thousands more I have on file) about happiness is the increasing absence of these simple pleasures in our everyday lives, and the replete presence of them in the lives of others in other countries.
In the UK, for the middle-class and upwards, parenting and family life have become completely twisted around the axles of guilt, anxiety, competition and shame: what grades are your kids getting, are their diets organic, how many clubs do they attend, are you a bad parent if you do or don’t get them an iPhone? If budgets are tight or you are poor, there is such a non-existence of a safety-net and your days are so consumed by trying to survive the day-to-day and week-to-week, worrying about chess clubs and screen time probably seems like a dreamy problem to have. But wherever you fall on the economic scale in the UK, family life has become a chore. It is certainly not something people have either the time or freedom from worry to really enjoy any more.
Not so in other countries. For example, when you visit Scandinavia and the Netherlands – countries that have powerful social security nets, enviable maternity and paternity leave, high quality physical and mental health services and governments that seek to both centralise and support family life, not damage and derail it, you discover countries where people have an abundance of freedom and time. Time to spend with family, friends or loved ones, time off from work to raise children, time to play and work with your children and teenagers, time that is precious and should be invested in the things that make us successful, resilient and happy.
One of the biggest areas of concern for UK teachers is they have less and less time even to talk to their students at break and lunchtimes, let alone consider their individual needs whether they be academic, emotional or personal. We are all aware of countries which do these things better than we do – Finland, Japan, Denmark and Norway – and of course the inherent problems of comparing ourselves to countries so very different from ours. But what is galling is the sheer amount of sniping that occurs when the issue of making UK schools ‘happier’ places is raised. To suggest that kids should be happy, noticed individuals in the place where they spend 12 very significant years of their lives seems to be tantamount to suggesting 15-year-olds should be finger-painting with yoghurt instead of learning Shakespeare or playing Candy Crush Saga instead of learning maths. Happiness gets conflated with ‘liberal-wooliness’ or ‘snowflake culture’ and that is taking us – and our youngest generations – to a very dark place indeed.
Interestingly, some of the happiest and most engaged teenagers I’ve seen recently in the UK were those I met during the climate protests (events that were heavily influenced by Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands). It was an opportunity for young people to engage in a united goal, experience togetherness, play together (there was lots of larking about and playfulness), scream, shout, have an adventure and feel a sense of purpose that wasn’t just about them, individual pressure or personal results. Lots of them protested with friends, family, parents or big groups of strangers – and there was lots of bonding. Of course, lots of our society and the media turned on them calling them ‘spoilt’, ‘indulged’, ’snowflakes’, ‘middle-class elites’, ‘losers’, ‘unwashed’ and much worse.
This points to an uncomfortable truth – that perhaps we’ve become so estranged from happiness, we actually don’t really want our young people to be happy. Like Child Policy-Making Lady suggested – resilient: yes, successful: definitely yes. But happiness? We’re not so sure.
Happiness seems to centre on things we increasingly see as negative in this country: making time for each other, listening to and noticing each other’s peril, supporting those who are vulnerable, championing equal rights for all and accepting that kindness is not weakness but one of the greatest responsibilities of humanity. And this is not only a shame, but a dangerous way to think. Success, resilience, achievement, wealth, beauty and goals etc are not only much harder to reach, but impossible to enjoy if you aren’t a basically happy person. A lot of other countries seem to understand this truth better than we do, but I don’t think we should become like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany or Spain. We should aspire to be a happier and ergo better and more successful United Kingdom.