Happy now?

Do you agree that your life has a sense of purpose? Would you say that, overall, you have a lot to be proud of? Do you wish you lived somewhere else? Coming out of the blue, these are tricky questions to answer. Yet they aren’t aimed at adults. They come from a questionnaire for children aged 11 to 16.

The charity think-tank New Philanthropy Capital has devised the questions as part of its “well-being measure”, a 15-minute survey that asks about relationships with family, school and community, as well as self-esteem and life satisfaction. The tool, being tested now, is designed to be used by charities, schools and youth groups to work out how happy (or not) children are. John Copps, who runs the project at NPC, believes the survey is capturing something that has been elusive: it is, he says, “putting a number on a feeling”.

The desire to match numbers to feelings is popular at the moment. In November last year, prime minister David Cameron put happiness at the centre of government policy when he announced that the Office for National Statistics would produce a national “well-being index” alongside its usual tables measuring income, health, births and deaths. And from this month, as part of the data-gathering, about 200,000 people a year will be asked new questions about their life satisfaction as part of the Integrated Household Survey.

Though Cameron has acknowledged that many will think the idea of happiness measuring “airy-fairy and impractical”, it looks as if it is here to stay: official enthusiasm for monitoring and improving our collective happiness – or lack of it – has never been higher. This week the UK’s best-known happiness expert, Richard Layard, a professor of economics at the LSE, co-launches Action for Happiness, “a new mass movement to create a happier society”.

Layard, the author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science (2005), also co-wrote A Good Childhood (2009), for which 8,000 children were asked how happy they were with various aspects of their lives. Layard recommended a community-minded vision for happy childhoods (the subtitle of the book is “Searching for Values in a Competitive World”): “We want our children to discover that caring for others and contributing to a common good is ultimately more satisfying than either wealth, beauty or personal success. ”

NPC hopes the data it collects will, over time, provide a national picture of how happy our children are. Copps believes that measuring happiness could even change lives: “In future we hope to be able to say what makes the biggest difference to our life chances – is it self-esteem, the ability to cope in difficult situations or the relationships with our friends? This is a few years away but the possibility is tantalising.”

Ambitious, certainly – but are happiness surveys really essential to successful parenting? Copps points out that children’s well-being has been measured in academic circles for many years. The NPC survey is, however, designed to put the academic knowledge into a practical context: “We use closed questions, in eight areas of children’s lives [including family, friends, school and health] such as: ‘I get on well with my friends’, with answers on a range of five statements from ‘I strongly agree’ to ‘I strongly disagree.’ ”

Each child is scored from nought to 20 (from extremely unhappy to very happy). Children don’t see their own scores, rather, the whole group’s answers are pooled into a “measure” for each of the eight sections, on a percentile scale from one to 100. “So the bottom fifth, scoring nought to 20, would be very unhappy,” says Copps. Smiley faces appear on the results when they are drawn up and shown to participating children. It’s early days but some results are already in. “Working-class white girls in schools have lower self-esteem than the general teenage population.” That may not be a particularly surprising result but then maybe the point of such surveys is partly to confirm what we think we know already about children but have never asked.

One of the first to test the NPC survey is Wellington College, a co-educational public school in Berkshire, with boarding fees of £9,595 per term. Its headmaster, the historian and biographer Dr Anthony Seldon, is one of the co-founders of Action for Happiness. Ian Morris, 34, teaches religious education and philosophy, and is head of well-being at Wellington. Five years ago he introduced the school’s first classes on the subject and has since written a book entitled Teaching Happiness and Well-being in Schools (2009). He stresses that all three of his teaching subjects are linked: “In my book, there are chapters on philosophy and spirituality, both of which are essential to the flourishing life.”

The Wellington curriculum now includes one hour a fortnight put aside for pupils to study topics including sleep, work, physical health, trust and altruism and sustainability (which is not about green issues but how to live well in the modern world – for example, how to make sensible use of technology). Morris explains how classes aim to develop children’s “resilience” and also build what an earlier era might have called “moral fibre”. “It’s about meaning and purpose,” he says. “Traditional personal, social, health and economic education tells children all the bad things that can happen to them, and gives strategies to avoid them. But statistics also say smoking is declining, as is alcohol and drug use among young people. Most don’t have these problems so, instead of a ‘disaster model’ of education, it is about maximising their potential instead.”

Morris says the NPC survey is used to measure the “baseline” happiness of children when they arrive, aged 13, and then track the impact of the school on the initial score. The September 2010 intake of 170 children has been given the survey, and they will be retested at least once as they go through the school. Data are presented in a group report and, says Morris, the school hopes the results will help identify potential problems for its teenagers’ well-being so it can act on them.

But can a survey – with bald statistical data – really get to the heart of how children are feeling? Copps believes that alternative methods, such as talking face to face, have drawbacks. “Young people need to answer honestly, otherwise they give false positive answers to please the people collecting the answers.”

It is not only how questions are presented that matters, says Nick Powdthavee,a behavioural economist and author of The Happiness Equation (2010). Trying to evaluate a child’s state of mind through adult eyes can be a slippery business: “I saw a cartoon in which the teacher is telling the children to sing ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.’ All the children except one are clapping. The caption is ‘Sammy was actually happy, he just didn’t know it.’ You can only measure something if the kids know what it means.

Another obstacle, Powdthavee points out, is that children tend to live in the moment, rather than seeing life as a series of “goals” or “stages” as adults do – so they may not be able to respond to big questions such as “How happy are you with your life as a whole?” He says, however, that it is how adults respond to children’s answers that is the most important thing to get right: “Asking children to think about their life shouldn’t harm them if adults don’t tell them afterwards that their answers are wrong: for example, by telling children that they shouldn’t be feeling happy because they don’t yet have what we, as adults, feel they need to be happy. Telling them what they should and shouldn’t feel using our own standards will lead to insecurities.”

It might be argued that the trend for analysing children’s feelings reflects adult rather than children’s insecurities. Who decides what questions to ask in the first place? Larissa Pople is senior researcher at the Children’s Society, the charity that commissioned the Good Childhood inquiry, and which has been working since 2005 on large-scale surveys of levels of children’s well-being.

Pople says that in the past children had been questioned according to what adults believed to be important for children. Nobody was asking children about autonomy and the importance of making their own choices. Having put a question (“How happy are you with the amount of choice you have?” – answered on a scale of 1-10) to thousands of children, Pople and her team found some interesting results. “Choice was the second most important factor after family, in explaining their overall level of well-being.”

At the other end of the privilege scale from Wellington College, the charity BBC Children In Need, which funds projects in deprived parts of Britain, is also using the NPC survey. Sheila Jane Malley, CIN’s director of grants and policy, agrees with Pople that children’s priorities can come as a surprise to adults.

She cites a group of disabled teenagers, who were surveyed on what they most wanted. Adults, she says, might have suggested education and independence should be priorities for this group but “their own absolute priority was to do things that weren’t organised, to hang out at the shops and have a good time the way other young people do.” Subsequently CIN funded a project to help them to take part in just that sort of unstructured socialising.

Some might argue that the result of “well-being” surveys is to give teenagers what they want, rather than focusing on what they need. But Malley says asking children what makes them happy, and acting on it, is not a “soft” option. Among the disabled teenagers, for example, giving them the chance to socialise independently on their own terms “is on one level about having a good time, on another level it is a transition to adulthood, helping build social skills, transport skills – these are the sorts of skills that help you participate fully in life. Some people need more help to do that.”

But if our interest in children’s feelings is reflective of the more touchy-feely spirit of the age, does the desire to measure their happiness fail, ironically, to take into account the opinionated children we have brought up? What if they don’t want adults poking about in their lives? In the preface to their bestselling guide to parenting modern teenagers Get Out of My Life – But First Take Me and Alex into Town (new edition 2008), Tony Wolf and Suzanne Franks point out: “Teenagers today have grown up in an era of far more lenient parenting practices compared with any previous generation. They feel more empowered than teenagers in the past. They are more assertive and less directly obedient, especially at home.”

I asked my daughter to have a go at the NPC questionnaire. She looked through it. “You can’t ask people to do this. It’s too personal. It’s your life, not theirs.” I explained that a real survey would be done anonymously. Sceptical, she rolled her eyes at me. “Really?”

So far, though, according to Malley, most children can’t wait to have their happiness measured. “They enjoy answering questions about their day-to-day lives.” And, however hard we try, there is a limit to how far we can boost children’s happiness.

As one 10-year-old told the Children’s Society, not only would she like to be popular at school, but “I would also like to be older.”

The science of happiness: Richard Layard on what brings us true joy

We are no happier now than we were 60 years ago. But now we know that a happier society cannot come about through faster economic growth – it must come about through paying far more attention to our human relationships.

That’s why, on Tuesday, I will be launching a mass movement called Action for Happiness. It is based on a simple idea: if we want a happier society, each of us has to make that a major objective of how we live. Our members will pledge to “try to produce more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around us”.

Behind all this is the new science of happiness, which tells us much about what we can do to make others happier and how to become happier ourselves. Its first finding is: “if you want to feel good, do good”. A key element in happy lives is making others happy. Neuroscience confirms this: when we help others, we experience a reward in the same part of the brain where we experience other rewards.

Strength comes from association. So, typically, members of the movement will form groups that aim to boost happiness – at home, at work or in the community. Our website proposes 50 evidence-based actions to improve happiness – and 10 related keys to happier living.

Economic growth has not produced the happier society many expected. We have neglected our human relationships and are paying the penalty in more broken families, lower job satisfaction, reduced trust and many other social ills.

People want something better. Even before launch, we have more than 4,000 members in 60 countries.

Action for Happiness has three founders: Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation, Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, and me. We expect some cynicism. To take the criticisms head-on, this month I publish a second edition of my book Happiness. Most of the critics offer no alternative vision.

For young people above all, the message should be to choose a life that increases happiness in the world. If you do, you will find true satisfaction and happiness yourself. Please join us.


‘Happiness: Lessons From a New Science’ by Richard Layard is published on April 18 (Penguin £9.99)

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