Do parents need to learn that happiness is not a birthright?

Picture: The Scotsman Archive
Picture: The Scotsman Archive
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‘Children were once allowed to grow up. Now we are fixated on ensuring every sadness is expunged, every dream fulfilled’

IT’S the question that divides every playground – how best to raise our children. Some parents believe in feeding on demand, some in controlled crying. Some show their love by giving time; others toys. A handful will experiment with more extreme forms of nurturing such as insisting on a macrobiotic diet or, like Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper, bringing their child up as gender neutral. But, whether they’re hothousing their offspring like Amy Chua, the tiger mother, or allowing them to run feral in the woods – they all want their children to be happy, don’t they?

Not Kirsty Young, apparently. The pursuit of happiness may be at the heart of the US constitution and a cornerstone of David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society, but last week the Desert Island Discs host revealed she had other aspirations for her daughters, Freya, ten, and Iona, four.

Insisting the girls would be “bloody lucky” if they glimpsed happiness now and again, she said she’d rather they were “content” with a sense of “self-worth”. At first, Young’s views, so stereotypically Scottish, seemed to run contrary to the zeitgeist. Ever since the economist (and last Labour government’s happiness tsar) Richard Layard wrote his book – Happiness: Lessons From A New Science In 2006 – we seem to have been in the grip of a cult of happiness.

With Bhutan held up as a shining example, the idea that the cheeriness rather than wealth of a country’s citizens should be the measure of its success has spread like a benevolent virus across the political spectrum.

But nowhere has our obsession with being happy manifested itself more clearly than in our attitude towards children: where once they were allowed simply to grow up, we now seem to be fixated on ensuring every sadness is expunged, every difficulty eased, every whim pandered to and every dream fulfilled.

You’d think that in the midst of all this positive thinking, Young’s suggestion that happiness is not something tangible and easily attainable might be as welcome a storm cloud in a sunny sky. And yet far from attracting criticism, her opinions have been well-received by parents apparently frustrated by how child-centric and narcissistic society has become, with many commentators suggesting that those who bring their children up to expect happiness are setting them up for disappointment.

Could it be that, just months after American psychologist Martin Seligman, pioneer of “happiology” and the inspiration for Cameron’s index of happiness, criticised the movement, saying it had been reduced to the simple pursuit of a cheerful mood, the tide is turning against it?

Certainly, there seems to be a growing recognition that focusing too closely on our children’s minute-by-minute happiness can be counterproductive.

In an article in The Atlantic magazine last year, therapist Lori Gottlieb said she was seeing a upsurge of young patients whose parents’ dedication to their wellbeing had left them ill-equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of adult life.

“No-one is going to say they want their children to be unhappy, but once you start thinking that children’s happiness is of fundamental importance then what you are likely to do is indulge children, and there’s a lot of difference between indulging children and being a good parent,” says Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Glasgow.

So is Young just engaging in thrawn Scottish miserablism? Or, is she, like the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – expressing the view that for adults and children alike, a degree of unhappiness is an inextricable and character-forming part of the human condition?

Society’s obsession with happiness is not new. Philosophers have been mulling over the question of what makes for a deep and fulfilling life for centuries. For Aristotle, happiness was the purpose of human existence. John Stuart Mill believed it was better to be “a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”.

Nor has the interest in happiness been confined to philosophers. Political leaders – particularly those who have headed totalitarian regimes – have been particularly interested in making their populations happy (and, doubtless, compliant). Stalin saw himself as “the Constructor of Happiness”, using statistics on the national well-being to suggest the citizens of the Soviet Union – despite the food shortages and the oppression – were permanently upbeat. Nazis too were big on happiness, with one of the key objectives of the Hitler Youth being to foster “comradeship, happiness and security”.

Since the 50s, human betterment has been conflated with consumption, with economists seeing growth as the greatest indicator of a country’s overall well-being. But in recent years, this view has been discredited. As Oliver James was pointing out the soul-sapping effect of modern materialism in his seminal book Affluenza, Layard and other campaigners began investigating other potential sources of spiritual fulfilment, such as philanthropy and engagement. His ideas caught on; the creation of a country full of “happy” rather than wealthy citizens became the Holy Grail.

The Campaign group Action for Happiness came up with a ten-point plan for promoting mental well-being which includes giving, relating and exercising, while north of the Border, Green MSP Patrick Harvie backed Cameron’s Index of Happiness.

The happiness of children has been at the heart of the new drive. In 2009, Layard and Judy Dunn published a book called The Good Childhood Inquiry, which blamed selfish individualism for young people’s malaise.

“[Kirsty Young] is totally and profoundly wrong,” says Anthony Seldon, founder of Action for Happiness. “I feel sorry for her children. Every parent should want their child to be happy more than anything else in life.”

There are those, however, who believe that all this emphasis on happiness is making us miserable; as well as lowering our expectations of what we can achieve. In her book, Smile And Die, for example, American feminist Barbara Ehrenreich calls the “happiness agenda” a “dangerous myth”, pointing out “a happy face and disposition will not get the best job or defeat cancer”.

Nowhere can this disconnect between the message groups such as Action for Happiness are trying to sell and its impact on the general public be more obvious than in the raising of children. So great is the emphasis on happiness, many parents feel it is their duty to keep their offspring in a sunny mood at all times, says Craig. So they indulge them, showering them with material goods and comforting them when they should be chastising them.

“A recent Unicef report said parents in the UK were very different from parents in Sweden, for example, in that they saw their role as a parent as providing materially for their children and they talked about their children’s happiness depending on them having the right stuff – that’s what you are likely to get if you focus on what a child is feeling in the moment,” she adds.

Craig says the concern for children’s immediate feelings is also jeopardising their ability to learn. “If they’re trying to learn tables or a foreign language and they’re finding it difficult and you will do anything to preserve their happiness, you may give them something easier to do thinking this will help them learn further along the line,” she says.

“But that doesn’t happen. What happens is you lower their standards, they don’t develop the resilience, they don’t learn that perseverance and challenge and struggle is what learning is about.”

The same concern for children’s “happiness” – combined with the internet and a glut of self-help books – is fuelling parental anxiety about all aspects of child-rearing; at its most extreme, it leads to a ban on toy guns, a reluctance to insist on chores, or a rushing out with arnica every time their toddler takes a tumble.

This focus on the need for every child to fulfil their potential is what lies behind the decision by Laxton and Cooper to raise their child gender neutral. Such was their concern that Sasha would be “pushed” into conforming to gender stereotypes, they refused to tell anyone but their closest relatives if he was a boy or a girl until he was five.

In the meantime, they encouraged him to dress in sequins and tutus and play with both girls’ and boys’ toys. “Stereotypes seem fundamentally stupid. Why would you want to slot people into boxes?” Laxton said. “Gender affects what children wear and what they can play with, and that shapes the kind of person they become. I start to get cross with it if it skews their potential.”

But with Laxton labelled “that loony mum” and ostracised from coffee mornings, is this experiment really likely to help their son make a successful transition to adulthood?

“I think people have lost the plot,” says Craig. “There’s too much focus on how they are going to turn out and I don’t think that’s helpful – it’s leading to all sorts of hot-housing and pressure on parents.

“I think they should focus on happiness less and think about what’s the basis of a good life – a lot of it is not about immediate gratification, it’s about operating within boundaries.

“They need a childhood closer to their own parents’ childhood where they don’t rule the roost, where they’re part of something bigger, where the whole world does not revolve around them.”

According to Seldon, the argument with Kirsty Young, who seems to believe in the rewards of hard graft, probably comes down more to semantics – and the nebulousness of the concept of happiness – than a radical disagreement on how children should be treated.

“I do understand why many people are aggravated by the whole notion of happiness which sounds so anodyne and feeble and woolly and ingratiating,” he says, “but for me happiness is different to pleasure – it’s about inner joy and deeper meaning in life. We use the word interchangeably, but pleasure is about drink and cars and houses and, in contrast, is a very superficial experience. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as it doesn’t hurt other people, but it doesn’t take you very far in life.

“You don’t get happy through earning a lot of money. You get happiness through inner work and patience and commitment to other people.”

This doesn’t really sound too different from what Young is saying. But Craig insists the very act of making happiness (or self-esteem) a goal – or encouraging your children to – makes the chances of attaining it more remote.

“The best approach is to look at happiness as a by-product of life,” Craig says. “The more you focus on it, the more unhappy you are likely to be because you will blow every little thing that happens out of proportion.” «