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Happiness!

In the UK alone, the wellbeing industry is worth a whopping £23 billion a year. Self-help books often top the best-sellers list and celebrities as diverse as Stephen Fry, Prince Harry and Joey Essex have all helped to raise the profile of mental health issues. However, the intensely self-revealing approach adopted by documentaries such as BBC3’s ‘My Grief and Me’ can make for deeply uncomfortable viewing. As the tears roll and we feel the intense pain of the celebrity in the counsellor’s chair, it can feel voyeuristic and exploitative. On the other hand, we do need to encourage young people to become more emotionally articulate and there is an undoubted sincerity and courage to those who are prepared to be vulnerable and face their demons in public.

The good news is that we are talking about mental health like never before. The bad news is that, despite this, the nation’s mental health appears to be deteriorating. Recent media reports have highlighted the increase in incidents of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. The challenges of the pandemic have had a profound impact upon mental health but the difficulties experienced by so many young people are often linked to hardship, abuse, bullying, assault and domestic violence. Even in the absence of such factors, young lives are often complex and the pernicious influence of social media and peer pressure often leads to depression, anxiety and the development of eating disorders. As parents, we naturally want to protect our children from those influences which will potentially undermine their confidence and sense of self worth but the greatest form of protection is education not control. As a school leader and father of three daughters, I do worry about the immense pressure placed upon young people.

Recently, I listened to an episode of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 during which Michael Burke wryly observed that, despite the elaborate promises of self-help books and positive psychology gurus, more pills are popped than ever before. Frustratingly, happiness often appears elusive when it is actively pursued as an end in itself. Since classical times, philosophers such as Epicurus and Jeremy Bentham have tried to identify the secret to a happy life. Neuroscientists at University College, London have even gone as far as reducing happiness to an equation. In case you are wondering, it is:

(t)=w0+w1Ej=1tyt-jCRj+w2Ej=1tyt-jEVj+3Ej=1tyt-jRPEj

The Himmalayan kingdom of Bhutan measures gross domestic happiness in much the same way as other countries attempt to measure domestic product. Finland is apparently the happiest country in the world despite its long summer nights and dark winter days. So what can we learn about the pursuit of happiness? Certainly those who claim to hold the keys to our future happiness might just be out to make a fast buck at our expense. .

First and foremost, happiness is an emotion or a pleasurable feeling that results from a sense of fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need prioritises the importance of our psychological needs. Relationships and friendships are important in this regard as most of us really do need to feel loved and valued. Validation of our hard work and the achievement of goals serves to boost our self-esteem. We thrive on the appreciation expressed by those around us because it gives meaning to our actions. Psychologists often refer to the positive impact of achieving ‘flow’. Being totally immersed in an activity to the extent that we are entirely focused provides a much needed relief from external worries and the negative impact of self-doubt.

One of the guests on last week’s Moral Maze advanced the view that being content is increasingly perceived as a distinguishing privilege which sets one apart in a manner which might be viewed negatively by others. Personally, I doubt that this is the case but it is not always possible to discern the positive impact of endless self-flagellating introspection. It is common to hear a public figure talk enthusiastically about ‘working’ on themselves and no celebrity story is complete without a backstory that contains a redemptive element. What in previous generations would have existed in the shadows is now considered excellent fodder for tabloid journalists. The headline might scream ‘my drugs hell’, but we know that the message will be one of recovery and hope. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. In moderation it is inspiring but in excess it becomes a worn trope that may have unforeseen consequences for those who perceive a sense of glamour, excitement and fascination with such destructive narratives.

There is nothing we want more than for our children to be happy but we must also allow them to experience a full range of emotions authentically. Life is beautiful and there are so many moments of joy that we should embrace and cherish. However, life is also challenging and punctuated by loss, sadness and anxiety. We should be teaching children to embrace all of these emotions rather than promoting the entirely unreasonable notion that every waking moment should be filled with bliss. Our children should know that it is fine to be sad at times and that anxiety is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Being alive, being an empathetic, compassionate and sentient being means there is an inevitability that we are going to experience a broad range of emotions ranging from deep pain to incredible joy.

I do think that we should be helping young people to self-regulate and embrace these emotions rather than encouraging them to believe that unbridled happiness is the only healthy state of being. The US Constitution does refer to the pursuit of happiness but in the eighteenth century the very word happiness had a different connotation and referred specifically to ‘prosperity and wellbeing’.It dealt more with a material state of affairs than an ethereal emotion or feeling. The pursuit of happiness was fundamental to capitalist ideology.

A uniformly happy life would make for a dull autobiography. An emotionally intense life that contains success, failures and the sense of loss that is the price that we pay for love is much more interesting. In any case, is it not the case that all great works of art emanate from a sense of internal discord, longing or struggle? Our lives are enriched by those who have a story to tell and those who commit to accomplishing great things.

If we truly want to live life in all of its vivid technicolor glory then let’s stop punishing ourselves with self-help books, endless diets and such like. Let’s model for our children what it is to truly live in the moment – free from the punishing expectations and pressure placed on us by social media, peer pressure, and all the other factors that can serve to diminish us.

Let’s laugh, smile, embrace the moment and, when our children are feeling worried or sad, let’s not immediately catastrophize it or lead them to believe that it is an unsolvable problem. Positive mental health flows from an acceptance of the human condition rather than an absorption with unrealistic or unattainable ideals which, if ever realised, would probably not make us at all happy. Finally, I am reminded of my friend at school who wrote a short story about heaven. He imagined that he had gone to heaven and was sitting on a cloud drinking wine, laughing and enjoying himself. After a little while he grew bored and voiced his frustration with the chap sitting next to him. ‘Ah no, Tom’ replied the chap, ‘This is not heaven, this is hell!’.


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