Should Our Kids Be Happy?

A British media personality has pricked the country’s happiness bubble by declaring that she does not want her kids to be “happy”. Kirsty Young, a Scot with two young daughters and two teenage step-children (and a husband who is a millionaire), said in an interview that it was impossible to be happy all the time because “Life is complicated … mostly never as it seems”.

“I don’t want my children to be ‘happy’,” she said. “They’ll be bloody lucky if they glimpse it now and again. I want them to be content and to have self-worth.”

I can understand her reacting against the obsession with happiness that seems to have taken hold of Britain. The government has been talking about it for a decade and is currently spending £1.5 million on finding out how happy or “satisfied” Brits are with their lives. Mind you, they have been goaded into it partly by a 2007 UNICEF report that ranked Britain bottom in child well-being (yet another word for happiness) compared to other industrialised nations.

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Putting that aside, is Ms Young right? Is happiness elusive and should we aim for something less?

It depends on what you mean by “happiness”. If it means mere pleasure, the enjoyment you would experience from being given a McDonalds voucher (maybe) or an iPad (definitely), then of course it is neither desirable as a life goal nor always attainable, and it would be foolish and unfair to lead children to expect it.

On the other hand everyone wants that extra something that is not captured by “contentment” and a sense of “self-worth”, important as those things are. We want joy, a sense of transcending ourselves, of growing and … flourishing.

That’s the word that Martin Seligman, founding father of happiness research, came up with last year to replace happiness — a word he now considers too subjective to be a guide either for individuals or nations. And the key to flourishing, he says, is meaning; we thrive when we pursue what is meaningful for us, and a large part of what is meaningful for a human being consists of relationships and accomplishments.

Interestingly, a follow-up report by UNICEF last year found that children in the UK feel trapped in a “materialistic culture” and don’t spend enough time with their families. The kids preferred to spend more time doing stuff, and doing it with their families, than acquiring stuff (top brands) in order to keep up with the trends.

There you are, you see: relationships and accomplishments. Surely if we teach children to make those things their goals, in that order, they can have more than occasional “glimpses” of happiness.

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