Happiness and Children
Depression and anxiety are rising rapidly among young people: what’s going on?
Happiness and Children
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 2.0.
By William Davies / opendemocracy.net

It is a mistake to expect children to be happy, worse still to insist on it. Childhood is navigated via rage and disappointment as much as by joy and pleasure, often in quick succession. Nevertheless, a five-year-old knows about as much as there is to know about happiness. In their love of the outdoors, their easy physicality and fascination with everyday objects, young children already understand the very things that adults struggle to learn.

It must register as a pretty damning indictment on Anglo-American society that ‘happiness’ is now something that has entered many school curricula. Imagine a society where children have to be taught how to be happy. It sounds almost dystopian, yet just such an agenda has gathered momentum since the early 1990s.

The idea of teaching children ‘happiness’ on the basis of psychological science (as opposed to some broader ethical idea of what counts as a good life) starts with the Penn Resiliency Program, founded in 1990 by Martin Seligman, the leading light of positive psychology. Within the Program, children between 9-14 years old receive tuition in cognitive-behavioural techniques and social problem-solving skills, which are deemed to be valuable for them in warding off depression and anxiety.

The positive psychology campaign, Action for Happiness, has explored possibilities for similar projects in the UK. The idea has been advocated widely by Anthony Seldon, one of Action for Happiness’s founders and former Head Master of Wellington College, where he famously introduced ‘wellbeing’ classes into the curriculum. Seldon was also involved in setting up a chain of academy schools, led by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former advisor Lord James O’Shaughnessy, which builds directly on the research and education schemes of Seligman. Lessons in ‘character’ are viewed as central to the restoration of children’s wellbeing. 

‘Character’ itself has been a steadily growing concern amongst educators in the United States and Britain. Influenced especially by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, schools have begun to focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ and ‘grit’ amongst children, which encourages them to change their understanding of themselves so as to see obstacles as surmountable.    

Then there is the movement to introduce mindfulness into the classroom, as advocated by the Mindfulness in Schools Project. Meditation is believed to help children become more resilient in the face of depression and better able to concentrate in class.

The desired outcome of such techniques is often ambiguous. Dr Sophie Sansom, who manages a school mindfulness project, argues that it is “the best way to help kids to flourish”. A teacher whose school has adopted it offers a somewhat different justification: “on occasions when we do have that wobbliness, after playtimes, after PE, after lunchtimes, we're able to practice this mindfulness and it calms the whole situation down.” Hmmm.

Few would deny the evidence that mental health is an escalating problem for children, especially in the English-speaking world. In 2007, UNICEF reported that children in the UK experienced the worst levels of ‘wellbeing’ of any European or North American nation, with the United States second worst.

Much of the interest in ‘character’, ‘resilience’ and mindfulness at school stems from the troubling evidence that depression and anxiety have risen rapidly amongst young people over the past decade, resulting in heightened rates of self-harm. It seems obvious that teachers and health policy-makers would look around for therapies and training that might offset some of this damage.

A pragmatic defence of these programmes might be that the triggers of stress are randomly distributed, culturally endemic or beyond anyone’s control; hence it is only sensible to focus on the symptoms. In the age of social media, ubiquitous advertising and a turbulent global economy, children cannot be protected from the sources of depression and anxiety. The only solution is to help them build more durable psychological defences.

This somewhat grim picture is open to debate, especially given what is known about the impact of class and inequality on children’s wellbeing. But even leaving that evidence aside, it appears curiously blind to the manifold ways in which all schools are already integral to how human beings flourish (or don’t), both as children and as adults.

If we can park all the friendly-sounding rhetoric of ‘happiness’, ‘character’ and ‘mindfulness’ for a moment, it’s possible to see schools as spaces in which the possibilities for happiness might either grow or shrink. And in the UK, government policy seems hell-bent on crushing the spirit and optimism that children are otherwise perfectly able to discover and develop.

Since last year, thousands of children entering primary school in the UK for the first time (some as young as four) have been subject to a ‘Baseline Assessment’, introduced by the government to attain a standardised gauge of their progress leading up to their moving on to secondary school at the age of 11. Funded by the Gates, Walton and other private foundations and encouraged by the Obama Administration, school ‘reformers’ in the United States have embarked on a similar programme of standardized testing and teacher evaluation.

Policy-makers claim that such interventions offer crucial ‘comparability’ between pupils so as to identify those that are falling behind—an argument straight out of the annals of new public management, though one that the UK government has since had to retract.

Teachers argue, on the contrary, that such testing interferes with the crucial period when a child is starting school for the first time, when everything should be about building a relationship with them and making them feel safe. Some teachers have reported that the tests make children cry and damage their self-esteem. If, for example, a five-year-old has English as a second language, a technocratic evaluation of their linguistic ability may represent them very badly and show nothing of their longer-term possibilities.

Teachers believe that the negative impact of tests and exams on the mental health of children in English schools begins when they are as young as six, and gets worse from there. The World Health Organisation found that 11 and 16-year-old pupils in England feel more pressured by their school work than is the case in the vast majority of other developed countries. Childline reports that the number of children seeking counselling for exam-related stress doubledbetween 2012 and 2014.

In protest against this culture, a campaign entitled Let Our Kids Be Kids organised a ‘pupil strike’ across schools in the UK. In resistance to new tests for seven and eleven-year-olds to be taken later this month, thousands of children were kept out of school on May 3 2016. Parents involved in the campaign have reported their children having nightmares about the impending tests.

Children are not the only victims here. A survey undertaken in 2015 discovered that nearly half of all teachers in the UK had visited a doctor for reasons to do with stress, with five per cent being hospitalised. The main reasons cited by teachers were workload, pay, school inspections and constant curriculum reform by central government.

The regime of audit, testing and ranking eats into the wellbeing of the teacher as much as that of the pupil. The news that some schools are making children sit mock exams within the first month of the autumn term (thereby potentially invading the psychology of the pupil on summer holiday) is a reflection of the pressure that schools are under to produce ‘results.’

Many teachers simply wish to get out of the profession altogether. How children are expected to learn ‘character’ from adults who would rather be elsewhere is anyone’s guess. But this is the paradoxical scenario that is arising, thanks to an ideology that welds together pre-modern ideas of ‘flourishing’ with an uber-modern obsession with metrics and performance ranking.

The irony of turning schools into therapeutic institutions when they generate so much stress and anxiety seems lost on policy-makers who express concern about children’s mental health. One doesn’t have to subscribe to a belief in ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘individualism’ in order to understand the source of much that makes schoolchildren unhappy—one simply has to look at the relentless exam and inspection schedule they have to follow.

In fairness, some proponents of happiness education do speak out against excessive performance-testing. Lord Layard, probably the most prominent advocate of happiness science and positive psychology in the UK, regularly denounces the consequences of ‘materialism’ and ‘inequality’ for mental wellbeing. Positive psychologists tell us we should avoid ‘comparing’ ourselves to others, which—one might presume—would include avoiding enforced comparisons between children who are only a couple of years out of their nappies.

But there remains a serious blind-spot. Economists assume that competition is something that occurs spontaneously in the market, a natural force that public policy can prepare us for but not alleviate or shape. Positive psychologists reduce anxiety and depression to defects of behaviour or cognitive biases. But what if people are being socially compelled to compete, perform and prove themselves? And what if that compulsion, far from being ‘natural’ or even a diffuse cultural effect of ‘late capitalism’ or ‘modernity’, is in fact deliberately designed by policy-makers who seek to bolster their power with more and more data?

What if it is really the anxieties and fears of those such as Nicky Morgan, an Education Secretary in the UK Government who knows nothing about teaching, or the Department of Education wonks who are wrestling to make the world conform to their numerical understandings, that are really responsible for placing more and more stress on children?

In other words, what if it’s those in love with control fantasies and the stupid rhetoric of a ‘global race’ against China who would benefit most from a touch of mindfulness—not the children who know perfectly well how to enjoy themselves before they ever walk through the gates of a school?


William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His weblog is at www.potlatch.org.uk and his new book is The Happiness Industry: How the government & big business sold us wellbeing (published by Verso).


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.
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Happiness and Children