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London - Over the past 30 years, our culture has become more obsessed with pursuing an elusive human state called happiness. We are convinced it offers an antidote to depression and other mental health troubles.
This butterfly chase has culminated in David Cameron’s annual “happiness survey”, which asks 200,000 householders questions like: “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” - at a reported cost of £2 million.
But some experts think this emphasis is wrong, and say the pursuit of happiness has created the problems it was designed to protect against. Young people now expect easy success as an emotional human right, and crumble into suicidal depression when faced with adversity.
Indeed, suicide among teenagers and young adults has increased three-fold in Britain since 1970, according to figures from the United Nations. Young people from the most affluent and protective backgrounds are the most at risk.
An increasing body of research suggests that pursuing happiness can prove futile at best. Last year Yale University found that adults who followed tips in magazines on how to be happy often felt worse - due to disappointment at the ‘you can be happier’ promise proving hollow.
But a review of happiness studies by Nicholas Emler, a professor of psychology at Surrey University, concludes that we seem born with our personal level of self-esteem pre-set for life. No amount of self-help books can change it, he says.
Many experts believe what really matters is resilience - the ability to take life’s knocks on the chin, pick yourself up and carry on. A leading expert in the study of resilience, Professor Michael Rutter of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, believes adversity is like a vaccine - a bit of it when people are young can build up defences for later.
“There is evidence that stress can cause strengthening in some people,” he says. This also has a physical effect, he adds, as exposure to emotional pressure can make the body’s nervous and hormonal systems more resistant to stress.
The US National Institute on Aging has followed thousands of people from young adulthood intoold age. It found those who maintained a grittily positive view of life were fitter and healthier in their older years.
In Britain’s older generation we see this in the “Blitz spirit”, the belief that adversity breeds strength. “Resilience” is the new buzz-word.
Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, of the University of Pennsylvania, have come up with the concept of “resilience coaching”. In their 2002 book The Resilience Factor, they reject the idea that “positive thinking” can beat adversity and say we need to learn “accurate thinking” instead.
This idea has reached the political arena, with Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham recently urging Cameron to scrap happiness surveys and focus on helping people cope with life’s troughs, especially in the recession. “Resilience is the bottom line,” he declared.
Resilience teaching is already on the curriculum at 46 state schools in Hertfordshire. One child to benefit is an 11-year-old I’ll call Adam, who suffered serious bullying at the primary school he left last year.
His senior school, Longdean in Hemel Hempstead, is coaching him to fight back - by learning to have the strength of character to become immune to it. He is one of 6,000 mainly 11-year-olds who have received 18 hours of resilience lessons per year since 2007.
He believes it’s made a real difference, saying: “I have learnt how to bounce back from the bullying, and I have even been helping my friends with this kind of thing.”
The courses aim to teach children mental habits so they respond to pressures positively. If a pupil fails a test, they may think: “I’m not good enough.” They’re encouraged to adopt resilient thoughts instead, such as: “Which bits did I do OK at? Where can I improve?”
Lucy Bailey, who runs the scheme, says: “Our aim is not to help people be happy. We’re trying to help young people lower their risk of becoming clinically anxious and depressed.”
Parents’ eagerness to protect offspring from harsh realities can leave them sorely vulnerable, she says. “Children who unexpectedly commit suicide often come from supportive families and have good school records, but have never come across adversity before. When they do, whether it’s romantic troubles, academic failure or problems with parents, they don’t have the skills to cope.”
The US Army launched a course to strengthen soldiers’ resilience two years ago, after psychologists said increasing numbers were returning from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. Rates of suicide were rising, too.
One element of the programme is called Hunt The Good Stuff. This teaches troops to notice all the good things rather than the negatives - even small things like a colleague holding a door open for them.
Military psychologists say this small but fundamental change of attitude can be a great help when something deeply traumatic happens in combat. Major General Don Dunbar, who implements the programme, says: “This is not some namby-pamby, feel-good kind of experience. It is about survival.”
US Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum visited Britain to spread the teaching, including to pensioners. Cornum, who was assaulted by Iraqi forces in 1990, has studied what makes some people more resilient than others, and leads the $125 million emotional fitness regime for the US military.
She is coming to Britain again to help the Young Foundation with its scheme to instill a sense of “grit” in young people. The think-tank is also piloting a support service for over-65s suffering isolation, mild anxiety or depression. The aim is to get them to help each other boost their sense of resilience.
Will these courses make a difference? The London School of Economics studied 4,000 pupils in Hertfordshire - those who took resilience lessons for a year and those who didn’t. It found the course lowered levels of anxiety and depression and raised academic attainment.
But not everyone is convinced. As Lord Layard - the economist who set up the independent Action for Happiness movement to promote well-being - puts it: “The problem with the word ‘resilience’ is that it has a slightly dour sense to it and comes from handling adversity.”
And some researchers say there is a genetic element to resilience - gene 5-HTT appears to help buffer people against the effects of adversity, controlling how much of the ‘feel-good’ chemical serotonin circulates in the brain.
A third of the UK population has a form of the gene. So is it pointless teaching resilience to this group? Professor Rutter thinks not. He says the gene may make them more sensitive to what happens in their environment, positive and negative.
The key point to remember, he says, is that there’s been too much focus on ensuring children never experience stress: “Stress is part of what is normal. Parents should ensure it is part of growing up by letting them experience risk and adversity, while trying to protect them against excessive stress.
“In this way, children can learn how to cope with challenges, to take responsibility, to develop their self-control and to reflect on their experiences objectively, rather than being overwhelmed by them.” - Daily Mail