Saturday, 14 April 2007

Searching for Happiness (again)

We wrote a couple of blogs in February / March about the UNICEF study about child well-being in rich countries . On Thursday night the BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme, Miserable Children , looked at the subject again.

The presenter, Andrew Brown, points out that whatever the criticisms of the study’s methodology, the popular explanations for the unhappiness of British children (like one parent families, working mothers etc) don’t stack up in the light of international comparisons.

I’ve read the UNICEF study for myself and was concerned to see that British children are at or near the bottom of the league table for both subjective and material well-being. You could be forgiven for thinking that increasing material affluence would therefore be a good thing to do.

When you start unpacking the figures, however, British children don’t do badly when it comes to the absolute level of material affluence, coming out above average in the league table (in 8th position out of 20). But in terms of relative poverty they fare much worse, coming 23rd out of 24 (the USA is 24th). Notwithstanding that there are children in Britain who do have very little, what the UNICEF figures suggest is that happiness for most children today has more to do with the perception of how well they are doing compared to others.

It is the case that children these days are under increasing pressure to be more successful compared to others (whether in terms of educational or sports achievement, beauty, acquisition of material goods etc). But as Professor Richard Layard of the LSE points out in the Analysis programme, by definition it’s impossible for more people to be more successful compared to others, and therefore it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction, both in childhood and later in adulthood.

The programme concludes with the suggestion that measuring status only in terms of material success is a recipe for never-ending and needless misery, and judging by everything I’ve read recently, I tend to agree.

If you want to hear this Analysis programme yourself, it’ll be repeated tomorrow, Sunday 15th April at 9.30pm.

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