According to the latest report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, 15 year olds in the UK are amongst the unhappiest in the world. The full wellbeing study involved 540,000 young people in 72 countries, although only 48 of those countries took part in the happiness measuring part of the study. With 15.6 percent of British respondents saying they were unhappy, the UK ranked 38th out of 48.
That is one way of looking at the statistics and one on which headline writers were keen seize. Despite the dystopian gloom, when asked how they felt about life, the average score for life satisfaction was 6.98, while 28 per cent of those questioned said they were very satisfied with their lives. So what are the factors which make a difference?
Given the amount of time and money devoted to this study (the rationale document alone runs to 270 pages) it is surprising that the conclusions derived from a mass of data only tells us what we already know. That is, that teenagers who feel part of their school communities and who enjoy good relationships with their teachers are more likely to be happy and perform well at school.
It’s also no surprise that ‘parents can make a big difference’. Students are happier (and perform better academically) when their parents take time to talk to them, engage in some kind of activity such as eating a meal together, and take an interest in what they are doing in school. In other words, strong family relationships lead to happier, more secure teenagers who ‘develop a sense of control over their future and the resilience they need to be successful in life’. And that works best when parents, teachers and students all work together. No surprise there, then, as any caring parent or teacher could have told you, without the need for the study.
The reasons which teenagers give for their dissatisfaction are also no surprise. They centre on anxiety about academic performance and bullying, both of which are already voiced as concerns on a regular basis. When we live in a culture of measurement where students are valued solely for their exam results and potential as future economic units serving the god Economy, is this any surprise? It’s further confirmed by the fact that the countries which are top Pisa test performers (China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) also report the highest levels of unhappiness, exceeding those in the UK. Proof, if it were needed, that valuing academic performance rather than the person performing is a sure route to unhappiness.
Bullying is also endemic in many of our schools; again, an understandable fact of life when the only thing that matters is the race to the top. Statistics in other studies show that 84 percent of disabled young people report bullying and the commonest reasons for being bullied are red hair and body shape. Boys, according to the OECD study, are more likely to be a victim of physically aggressive bullying, while girls are more afraid of spiteful rumours. Again, no surprise, and no need for a study to demonstrate what we already know – bullying is the ugly face of our society and teenagers are simply following the model provided for them.
But the question is, what do we do about it? The 2010 Equality Act, together with extensive programmes to enforce it in schools, should have made bullying a thing of the past. Clearly, it has failed. That is, in part, because it requires students to respect ideas, points of view, beliefs and personal opinions. We should be teaching children to respect people as fellow human beings, not what they think or believe.
But there is a much more fundamental cause of the lack of happiness in our young people and it isn’t one that schools can solve, because it is a problem created by wider society. One of the aspects of unhappiness that the OECD notably failed to study was the impact of family breakdown on young people, even though this is one of the most commonly cited reasons for unhappiness. It’s not just about broken relationships within the family, but also about lost friendships when the breakdown necessitates house and school moves.
So, in order to start nurturing strong, secure teenagers, let’s prioritise stable marriage and strong family life in our proposed Relationships Education curriculum. Study after study shows that strong families are the route to strong communities and societies. Let’s value our children and young people for who they are, not what they can do – people made in the image of God and loved by Him.
When, as they did so many times, the people of Israel turned their backs on God and went their own way, the prophet Jeremiah told them that God had plans for them, plans to give them hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). And that is what we all want for our children and young people – hope and a future. It’s a hope that is found in the gospel of Christ.