I 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
- Underage pregnancy
- Violent bullying
- Parental suicide
- Eating disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder & night terrors
- Violent/abusive relationships
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.