A report was recently issued about what children need to be happy.
I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I didn’t have quite the same reaction of “this is a revelation” that some had.
That’s probably because I’ve spent several years reading the research on happiness, wellbeing etc. So it isn’t surprising to me.
After all, children are small people. They are less experienced (and probably therefore less cynical), generally more mentally flexible and are often hard-wired to learn faster (as with language acquisition up to the age of about 10). But they are still people.
So what we know from 40 years of research about what makes adults happy is probably going to apply to children.
Let’s look at what the report came up with as six priorities for happy childhood.
- The chance to learn
- A positive view of yourself
- Important experiences
- Positive relationships with family and friends
- A safe home life
- Positive activities
There seems to be a fair bit of overlap there (what are positive activities if they aren’t important experiences and what are those if they don’t give you a chance to learn?)
In my book Taming the Pound, I summarised the happiness reasearch as saying that once you had food and shelter (a safe place) in order to promote happiness you should:
1. Focus on the life you want to live, don’t get hung up on money and “things”
2. Work out what you would really value achieving and act on it.
3. Think of ways to “give something back” that have value beyond yourself.
4. Look at your relationships – people are more important than things, so invest in what matters, like friends and family.
5. Focus on what you have now, thinking “when I get X I’ll be happy” wastes time and time isn’t money, you can get more money, you can’t get more time!
6. Forget about the destination, life is the journey, so use your money to experience your life while you’re living it, not to accumulate things that you can enjoy having on your death-bed.
7. And a bonus to all this is that you seem likely not only to be substantially happier, but also live that happy life considerably longer!
We knew it was about experiences, doing something meaningful and important, that relationships were key and that having sufficient value in yourself and your actions to try to benefit others were important – and we knew that these tended to lead to longer active life.
My point isn’t that the research was redundant (although, largely it was, because we already knew the results). The research is relevant, because children are the future, they are important and anything that focuses society on the future wellbeing of the citizens of the country is, in my view, a good thing.
My question is, why are we focussing on children alone?
People have commented on the report that about one in ten children is depressed and that this is terrible and something we should do something about. In any one year, one in ten of the population is depressed, about one in five will have at least one episode of depression in their life.
The comment is made that children want to fit in, that they need to have the same trainers and clothes as others or they feel alienated. Why do you think that if you move as an adult into a higher paid job you tend to move to a more expensive area, join a more expensive golf club, buy a more expensive car (and change it more often)?
Everybody, child or adult, can be depressed and tends to want to have, materially, what their peer group has.
I’d suggest that, even if we could eliminate childhood depression (I don’t think we can, although we ought to try) we might have a problem when they become adults and suddenly find out that they have a one in ten chance of being depressed because they have passed the magic age where everything is provided and reached the age where they have to cope on their own.
Suppose we ensure that all children have the same trainers, X-box etc. What are we going to do when they grow up? Will we buy everybody a mansion because the Beckham’s have one, a Caribbean Island because Branson has one, an art collection because Saatchi has one?
We aren’t all going to have all the material things – but the happiness research says that isn’t actually very important.
What we might do is to teach everybody, child and adult, that there are more important things in life (and happiness) than material goods and money.
And teach everybody, child and adult, that relationships, experiences, values, learning and doing something that benefits others are actually more valuable and lead to more happiness and better health, than constantly chasing more money and more material goods.
After all, when you end up with more money than anybody, what do you do, buy a planet to show how much you’ve got? And when you’re the richest person in the graveyard, and your child (that you never saw because you were too busy making money) has the worlds entire supply of trainers, do you think either of you will be happy?
It’s not, as I said that I don’t think that we should provide for children to be happy to the best of our ability. And it’s not that I don’t think money is useful – after all, it is what can provide hospitals, good experiences (for adults and children) and allow us to do worthwhile things like helping out those less fortunate.
It’s just that maybe we could think about educating all of us, not just the children, that happiness is well researched, we know what we can usefully spend our money on to make for a happier society.
All we really need is the will to do it.