Young Millenials and The Happiness Deficit

serotonin and dopamineI don’t know why a two-year-old article on happiness is floating around my Facebook today, but it struck something in me because I’ve been meeting some horrendously unhappy people over the last few weeks. The article is about the big rush of interest in the ‘science’ of happiness that happened a year or two ago, perhaps triggered – or at least popularised by – Bhutan’s policy of ‘Gross National Happiness’ hitting the Western media.

Dr. Seldon, the writer of the article, is one of the founders of a movement called ‘Action for Happiness’, whose goal it is to work on ways to decrease human misery. He acknowledges that happiness could be seen as a trivial topic, but argues that the fact that “prescriptions of antidepressants have risen by 43 per cent since 2006” clearly suggests something is seriously wrong and it needs dealing with. “The tragedy”, he says, “is especially acute for young people. They are suffering grievously, with adolescent suicide again on the increase, and the proportion with a whole variety of distressing emotional problems rising from 10 per cent in 1974 to 17 per cent in 2006.”

I’m rubbish at statistics, and I don’t know why he used a statistic from 2006 in an article written in 2011, but I’d confidently bet that the percentage of young people with distressing emotional problems has continued to rise, particularly since the credit crunch and ensuing troubles.

My new job involves working in an educational setting with young people who are struggling. It’s very likely that this is colouring my view of UK happiness levels, so I willingly acknowledge the subjectivity of this article; but even in my previous role working with young people following the more conventional route, I often encountered emotional distress in different forms. In the last week and a bit, though, I have spoken to young people who are dealing with various combinations of the following:

  • Early childhood sexual abuse
  • Parental heroin addiction
  • Caring for very sick parents
  • Serious poverty
  • Rape
  • Underage pregnancy
  • Abortion
  • Violent bullying
  • Parental suicide
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder & night terrors
  • Violent/abusive relationships
  • Homelessness

Obviously, all these young people are being looked after by child protection teams, social services and an impressive array of incredibly hard working people from different agencies who are busting their guts to help. But to me, as a relative newcomer to this level of suffering (at least a newcomer to being someone in ‘authority’ who wants to help), it all just seems like an insurmountable mess.

A fellow teacher advised me this afternoon to just get on with fighting the fires as they flare up and not to question what’s causing them – because that way madness lies. I’m sure he’s right, and I will work on doing that, but it’s not in my nature to do so.  Today I’m feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of these young people’s problems, and I’m wondering what sort of society we have made that has caused this. Why do we have so very many profoundly unhappy, lost and struggling young people? Am I being idealistic to imagine that this would not happen in a society based on smaller, closer knit communities?

We seem to have created a world where our most lost young people don’t aspire to be like their closest adults as I (undoubtedly naïvely) imagine they did in the past. This is probably partly because many of the adults they see around them are desperately trying not to grow up themselves, and partly because there are far more compelling role models in the media. Because of this, many of our young don’t learn how to take responsibility for and cope with their own emotions, or to understand or care about the consequences of their behaviour. And to be fair, they have no reason to, because they don’t have goals in common with any particular community other than other disaffected young people. Our education system has killed their interest in the world around them, so they have nothing they particularly want to strive for, and there’s no motivation to do anything apart from seek hedonistic pleasures/drown their negative feelings.

But all this is not the fault of the young. They didn’t make this culture – we did. When I offloaded some of this to long-suffering spouse, he said “I suppose it’s the fault of our generation. The Punk generation. We’re their parents.” And he may be right. I know many of our generation – Generation X – were brilliant, responsible, creative and generally excellent – but I also know from experience that many others of us screwed ourselves up on drugs, refused to take responsibility for anything because we believed everything was the fault of ‘the system’ and tried wholeheartedly to resist ‘selling out’ (i.e. growing up and developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world). We rejected everything, and therefore what did we have left to offer our children?

I don’t know if that analysis has anything to do with any of these problems – there’s also rampant consumerism, celebrity culture, mass loss of faith in politics, results-driven education and all the rest to be taken into consideration – but I’m not claiming to have any answers. Really, I’m just offloading my distress at our culture that on the one hand has given people a standard of living that hasn’t really been seen ever before in history, but on the other hand is making so many people so utterly and inconsolably miserable.


19 replies to “Young Millenials and The Happiness Deficit

  1. goodness, its like you have taken todays thoughts from my mind!! i also work with young people in an educational environment. i am responsible for their welfare. maybe i was sheltered growing up but i can’t remember it being so bad. i dont think we are to blame. my girls are too old now for me to be able to comment on them but i have worked with some young people who have fought through in spite of their experiences and difficulties. it makes me feel a bit better knowing there are fab young adults out there regardless of what life has thrown at them…. although hard to be professional sometimes when all i want to do is give them a squeeze he he. i agree with what you have written, but just like every generation there are a lot of awful ones……

    great post as always Throbbings!! x

    1. Yes, I don’t remember it being so bad, but I was definitely sheltered until I left home and flung myself into the world of drugs and whatever. I saw some pretty grim stuff then, but it’s distressing seeing it from a grown up’s perspective….!

      You’re right about many young people being amazing and fighting through, but it is SO difficult when they’re in the midst of this distress to work out how to help them. Especially when mental health issues are involved. It’s upsetting and frustrating, isn’t it…

      Glad you’re reading, Meg x

      1. also out of interest i have noticed that my problemed students are predominantly female….. what about you? x

      2. i thought it was because i was female, but my male colleagues say the same thing so i dont really know!! what do you think??? having two daughters myself i find it really hard to help without getting attached…. how do you deal with this?? happy im not alone x

      3. My male colleagues find it too. Sometimes it makes them say exasperated things about women, and I can understand why (even though it is, of course, only SOME women!). The boys in my groups tend to find the worst of the girls VERY difficult to put up with as well.

        I honestly don’t know why it is. Perhaps some girls just tend to verbalise their feelings more. Loudly and with plenty of swearwords!

  2. ” Am I being idealistic to imagine that this would not happen in a society based on smaller, closer knit communities?” Then I’m being idealistic too…When I was younger I hated the way our society had developed and dreamed of another way of living. I still believe in those dreams and a society like the one we had in the fifties here in Sweden. Everyone knew each other and you always felt safe and secure.

    That kind of society still exists in some places of the modern world…but I will never reveal where. I know what will happen to those havens when tourism and our hopeless western lifestyle reaches them. I have even met young people living in these remote places, who are so aware of what will happen that they tell me ” we know what we have got, we will never let that happen to us…” i hope they can resist…a while.

    It’s so easy – if you look at the young, the middle aged and the old people living in those areas, you will find that there is almost no criminality, no drugs and no violence. Of course some young have left for America or other western “role models”, but some stayed, and they are happy and free.

    You speak about the responsibility of your own generation. Well, every generation has its faults and shortcomings – depending on the generation before them. So I guess we’ll have to believe in Gandhi and be, ourselves, the change we want to see in the world.

    1. That’s very interesting. What do you think makes those young people understand so clearly about what they have and what would happen if they lost it?

      I am usually a bit reluctant to take on board quotations like that, but in this instance I think that ‘be the change’ is a really useful one. It sort of reminds me how to cope on days like today.

  3. Does it go back to the old argument about whether human beings are innately good or are infact innately greedy and voracious and need a tight moral framework to keep them on the right path. I’m not religious but I do think religion had something to offer in the past – a moral code by which to live being the main one. Not at all condoning what has been done in religions name but I do think we need to try and have good moral values embedded within culture – I’m pretty sure the bankrupt values of Thatchers Britain set us on not such a good path, where it became ok to have, have, have, without the obligation of giving back. I believe the casulaties of this kind of culture stretch far into the future, and could still be affecting your young people. Freedom is an interesting concept – because just simply ‘doing what you want’ isn’t the best route to it. Anyway not sure how to get it right in a secular way but I suspect that having a dream of small tight knit communities is simply that, a dream. Though food shortages in the future may bring people together locally. In the meantime we need to find a way to work with what we’ve got – mainly huge urban populations, with a lot of tip tapping away with virtual friends! I was interested to see (on that Channel 4 5 minute programme before the news) an atheist guy who has set up a Sunday meeting network (I think they may be in church halls) where people meet to discuss the moral issues of the day, have a sing song and generally connect with one another – but without god…sounds good to me. And I still think it’s a good thing to support local businesses wherever you are, that way communities do get stronger.

  4. Oh and I just read one of the blogs I’m following (probably a bit hippy for you!) and she was talking about happiness…I thought it was really good – heres a small excerpt, she is VERY wordy – but in a good way 😉

    …Its not like anything has really changed, we haven’t suddenly taken receipt of any secret formula for how to change the world around us and it certainly isn’t as if we have come into a large sum of money, it’s something more fundamental than that. It’s the ability to think, act and do for ourselves what humanity has been doing for millennia and what has delivered us to this very point here in our existence with the ability to choose to “first do no harm” to ourselves and our surrounding environment. Once you get your head around the fact that you DO, indeed, make a difference and that even your smallest efforts are like that smile that we have all heard about that can travel the earth or that small ripple on one side of a lake that causes a bow-wave on the other side, we can start to feel like our existence is worthwhile, meaningful and that there actually is “Hope”. Happiness is something that we weave ourselves…it might have a lumpy boucle look, it might be ruched by the dog pulling the wool/fabric of your existence, it might have slipped stitches and mismatched colours and be badly knit and you might have to wear it minus the collars and cuffs because life is too short to learn how to make them BUT at the end of the day you have a life jumper and it warms you when its cold and it gives you a sense of solidity that your life is actually something that you chose to take part in…your life HAS meaning and at the end of the day, that’s something precious

    1. Spouse would agree that since we lost god, we don’t have much to pin our notions of what’s right and wrong on. I’m more of an atheist than him, but I do see where he’s coming from. Some of the people I work with who have mental health difficulties do take huge comfort from having a set of guidelines that they can work to (the Bible / a direct relationship with a god), and they don’t spend too much time wondering about origins and contradictions.

      Problem we have with underpinning an agreed set of values is that all we have is our agreement – nothing else. And when someone doesn’t agree, what happens then? Certainly many of these young people are pretty up in the air when it comes to values. But I don’t know what the answer is.

  5. I read your post with empathy and recognition. Our kids are growing into a society where consumption is their only way of interacting. There is a lack of purpose and direction. Very little collective hope, and few long-term relations – in families and as labour.

    They have to invent their own goals. Until some years ago I wasn’t really aware of this. I have spent a big part of my life in the periphery. And now I’m ashamed of what my children will inherit.

    It seems you are fighting structural problems, too big to handle on one’s own. I’m sure you can provide your adolescents (at least) some new ideas, perhaps a new perspective. That may not change a generation, but perhaps a single life. 🙂

    1. They do have to invent their own goals, which on the surface may not seem a bad thing, but in the practice of their everyday lives is incredibly difficult. Especially for those who have no positive (in the sense of being interested/inspired by things) role models in their lives, and very little intellectual input apart from whatever they link to from Facebook.

      It is true they sometimes do respond to new things. I taught a spontaneous drawing class last week to a bunch of young people who were bored of what we supposed to be doing, and I had 80% of the class totally engaged (a miracle). One of the most miserable and negative students ended up completing a task that took half an hour. That’s never happened before. I don’t think I can change their lives, but with any luck I can show them moments of another way to be.

      Although maybe that’s the remnants of the idealist in me speaking.

  6. I should have taught my children that we must discuss and rebuild our society every day, actively – to involve them – and to maintain democracy and welfare.
    But I’m afraid I didn’t understand that until recently. I took it all for granted. My generation have been busy renovating our kitchens instead.
    (I’m sorry I cannot express myself in the way I would have done in Swedish.)

    1. You express yourself excellently, and I agree.

      I wish I had taken my children abroad to work in countries where everyone doesn’t have as much as we do. But we never had any money to do that sort of thing, and now it’s too late.

  7. This conversation adds a perspective to my everyday life. And now I know a little about Redruth and tin mining, too. I think you will inspire the young people you are working with to raise their heads an inch or two.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star