How happy are your children?

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Survey after survey tells us that Britain has among the least happy teenagers in Europe. But can this be the case? And why are we so obsessed with happiness anyway? Charlotte Philby discovers what really makes young people smile

How happy are you? It's a question many of us would struggle to answer, and understandably so. Happiness, by its very nature, is intangible. But that hasn't stopped this elusive state of being becoming one of the hot topics of our age, or prevented a surprising number of charities and Government bodies from attempting to "measure" it in various ways.

In recent years, a slew of surveys has been carried out in the UK – but no group has been so comprehensively researched and analysed, quantified and reported upon, as the nation's youth, the well-being of which has been the subject of any number of reports. And so far, the results have not been encouraging.

Two years ago, a Unicef enquiry placed the UK bottom in a league of "child well-being" in 21 industrialised countries. Last month, further evidence was released in a report by the University of York, which was carrying out research on behalf of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). It compared the well-being of 11- and 12-year-olds throughout Europe, based on a range of social and economic factors including education and health.

According to the survey's findings, children in the Netherlands and Scandinavia fared the best, while British children came in near the bottom of the table, making an appearance at number 24 out of 29 countries. The only youngsters who came off worse were those in Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta, some of Europe's least affluent countries. So why did Britain – one of the richest nations – fare so badly?

A shortfall in services, high levels of unemployment and low levels of education and training were all deemed to be in part to blame. Which maybe is not surprising, if you assume that the emotional well-being of our youth depends on their material circumstances.

But another recent study paints a rather different picture of what really makes young people happy. Earlier this year, Ofsted (the Government's Office for Standards in Education) and the Department for Schools, Children and Families asked 150,000 teenagers aged 15 and 16 across England to fill in a happiness questionnaire. This time, the questions were divided into five sections: emotional health (how many friends they had, and how able to talk to them about their problems they felt); levels of bullying; participation in sports and volunteering; substance abuse; and how happy the teenagers were with access to parks and play areas. The results proved somewhat counter-intuitive.

While one might have expected those in affluent environments to come out top of the well-being league, it was in fact teenagers from an economically deprived suburb of Liverpool who were found to be the happiest. Knowsley in Merseyside is an industrial area with high levels of homelessness and unemployment, and which consistently sits at the bottom of health and education leagues. Yet, despite living in an area of social deprivation, Knowsley's teenagers were found to enjoy a better quality of life than their counterparts in more affluent environments, including London's leafiest suburbs. And the reason? Because youngsters in Knowsley apparently have stronger friendships and family relationships than anywhere else in the country.

Jeane Lowe is the manager of Centre 63, a Church of England youth centre in Kirkby, one of six towns in the borough of Knowsley. She says it's true that young people benefit from a close-knit community – but argues that it's important to avoid blanket generalisations. "As well as happy, emotionally secure children, we see those who are desperately unhappy," she explains. "Around here, even when children have grown up and left home, they often tend to live near to their families or siblings, which is a positive aspect of life here. But there are also those young people who suffer from the high rate of family breakdown and families who face unemployment."

Despite these difficulties, Lowe thinks that children in the area benefit from being "resilient" in the face of social deprivation. And resilience, many believe, is a central part of any child's emotional well-being. Dr Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College and a bestselling biographer, is also an expert on children and happiness. At his school, where parents pay more than £25,000 per year for their child's education, he teaches "well-being classes" – in which pupils learn the practical skills to help them build up their emotional resilience. As Seldon explains, the fact that these children benefit from financial security doesn't offer them immunity from feelings of stress and anxiety.

"Since the Enlightenment we have somehow believed that money would make us better, but the implied correlation between affluence and well-being is not the case," he argues. In a bid to help children cope with their fears and worries, he promotes the importance of "living in harmony with others, with your environment, and in opening your hearts". In his classes, he emphasises the need to understand positive and negative emotions in order to cope with life's ups and downs.

No two children, he explains, are the same – there is no one-size-fits-all solution to unhappiness. But emotional support and understanding are vital in order to help a young person deal with the individual challenges they face on a daily basis. Seldon also believes that children from all backgrounds suffer from a fundamental lack of time and space in which to play and just be themselves.

Eileen Hayes, a parental advisor for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, agrees. Hayes thinks we would all benefit if we were to stop fretting about how happy our children are – and instead concentrate on giving them the space and freedom to find their own ways to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. "We have become pre-occupied with happiness," she says. "Our fears about the dangers that lurk beyond our front doors go hand in hand with our paranoia about how our children are feeling inside.

"We feel that something is wrong if we are not constantly happy," Hayes adds. "What children need to understand is that life is cyclical. There are bad times and good times; the question is how you deal with them."

Frank Furedi, the sociology professor and author of books including Paranoid Parenting and Politics of Fear, believes that fixating on happiness is not only distracting children from the important message but could also be having a more direct negative impact on their mental health. "Asking children to chase happiness as a stand-alone objective is making them overly sensitive to their emotions, and excessively inward-looking, which is creating a public-health risk," he says. "Children's emotions fluctuate from morning to afternoon, and telling them that they should be constantly happy is making them emotionally disorientated."

Perhaps it's not a particularly reassuring message: now we should be worrying about worrying about our children. But it seems there is some good news to be had. According to that reliable measure, the good old test of time, what children really need is emotional support; this is something on which all the experts I spoke to agreed. Trite as it may sound, the one thing we do know is that with enough love, most children can learn to overcome whatever challenges face them.

Rachel Cadaf 14, Washington, Tyne & Wear

There are generally two times when I feel happiest in my life. The first is when I am surrounded by all of my family, and the second is when I'm with the friends who I feel most comfortable with. There is one group of friends that consists of about 14 people, and whenever we all get together, I always feel properly safe. I go to one of two local schools and have loads of friends who live nearby. Every morning I walk to school with two friends and depending what day of the week it is, there might be two or 15 of us who come back together.

On weekends, we all go and run around in the park, and spend a lot of time getting covered in bruises from flying around on swings or pylons. I spend a lot more time with boys than I do with girls, so a large piece of my time is spent trying to play football, which I am not very good at. But I have fun trying.

I live with my little brother, who is always two inches behind me, and my mum and dad. I get on with parents a lot better than most teenagers. It's hard to pinpoint why, we just have a really good relationship; I know I can tell them anything and they will trust me and will never judge. It is really important that I have a closeness to my parents because it gives me a constant sense of security. No matter what else goes wrong, I always know that I will have them to fall back on. My biggest worries are things like school work and also my relationships at school. I think those are quite normal things for people my age to stress about. But I don't have any massive anxieties and I'm rarely unhappy. Even when things are not perfect, I know that they will get better.

Something must be going right because – even though I've just spent four hours in an exam hall – I still don't feel like I would change a single thing in my life right now.

Tasha Dhanraj 16, Burgess Hill, West Sussex

There is a quote from Plato about the youth of today not having any respect for their elders. It's common for adults to think that there is a big problem with "the youth of today", but I'd say that's just something adults like to think; I don't believe kids today are any worse now than they've ever been. Nothing annoys me more than when I'm treated like a child; I can have a decent conversation with adults and don't need to be talked down to.

I get along really well with my parents. People think it's weird, but we don't fight about anything at all. My family is a bit different to others: my dad is a house husband and my mum's a sales manager. They're really supportive of me and my sister, who's 18. We can do whatever we want and our parents will trust and support us. My mum even pays for me to have stand-up comedy lessons every Monday in Brighton, which is half an hour's drive away.

Burgess Hill is quite a cool place to grow up. It's five minutes' drive from the countryside but it's also a town so it's not ridiculously boring. On the weekend, I tend to go and watch comedy nights in Brighton, which I love. There is no sixth-form college at my school, so next year, I'm going to do an international baccalaureate course in Brighton.

I quite like school. I have a lot of friends but I'm not in the "popular" group. In the holidays, a big group of us will hang out at someone's house. The other night I had 10 friends round – guys and girls – and we sat and talked and watched 'Tropic Thunder'. People think there's a huge pressure to have sex and be thin and drink alcohol, but it's not really true. Some people have problems, but they tend to grow out of them. You soon realise you don't have to behave any certain way.

James Hughes 17,Carlisle, Cumbria

Eleven years ago, I moved from the middle of Glasgow to a village on the outskirts of Carlisle. It is a much quieter life here, very different from living in a big city. There is a much greater sense of community than where we were before, but just because it's smaller that doesn't mean it's boring.

I play a lot of sport, so that keeps me busy; I also have a part-time job and I'm studying sports, culture and development at a nearby college. I work at Halfords most weekends, selling and repairing bikes. It's the first job I've had and I've been doing it for two months. I like the independence it gives me; I can pay for things myself rather than always asking my parents, which makes life easier.

I grew up with my dad out at work and my mum staying with the kids at home. I've got two older brothers – one is 20 and the other is 28. We all get on quite well. Like any siblings, we have our moments, but we do have a laugh and we can talk about things. My eldest brother has moved to London, so sometimes I won't see him for a couple of months – which is a bit weird because I'm used to seeing them both every day – but I know he's not far away.

My other brother is at university and still lives at home, so it's not as if I'm ever home alone. We live in quite a close-knit community. Everyone goes to the same schools and knows each other well – I still have a lot of the same friends I've had since I was very young. Having good friends and family nearby is important to me. It gives you one less thing to worry about in life. I know I always have a home to go back to, and people I can chat to, so I'm never completely alone in anything I do. I know I have someone to rely on if everything goes wrong.

Sonni Regan 15, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Like anyone else, I have bad days and I have good days. But the most important thing that you can have is enough friends around to lift you up when you're feeling low.

If I'm upset, there is always someone who will look after me. My friends play a big part in keeping me happy. All of us are quite musical, it's one of the things we have in common. We like getting together after school and on weekends and indulging in our passion.

Music isn't the only thing we share – we are alike in other ways too, but we're also very different. I think it's important that you get a wide range of influences. When we meet up as a group, we're always laughing and joking about something or other. We talk about lessons and what we've been up to; we're always singing so it's a bit like sitting around a camp-fire when we get together.

If we do go out, we'll usually go to the new leisure centre that has been built in the town nearby, or on special occasions we'll take a day trip to a water park. But most often we'll just hang around at someone's house. We live in quite a secluded area in a big village, and it's quite far from the nearest town, but we manage to distract each other from boredom.

My biggest worry is schoolwork and deadlines, but my teachers are quite good at reassuring us about that sort of thing. Some adults, particularly teachers, can be paranoid about what teenagers get up to and what might be going on behind their backs, but they shouldn't worry.

The best thing an adult can do is to be supportive when we need you, and to try to be there for us all the time even when we don't.

Vandyke Osei-Dapaah 15, Walthamstow, London

I worry about the same things that adults worry about. At the moment, what worries me more than anything is the credit crunch, because when I start work, I know that jobs will be hard to come by. It means that I need to make sure I get good GCSEs.

I live in a house on an estate in east London. It's quite a dirty area and there can be a lot of traffic, but it's an all right community, there's not too much trouble. Gangs are quite a big problem in boroughs near me, but you don't get a lot of them around where I am. It can be kind of boring living around here, especially in the holidays. There isn't much for young people to do, so I end up staying at home a lot by myself, playing on the Playstation or the computer. Sometimes when I'm bored I'll ring one of my friends and organise somewhere to go on the weekend. I have quite a lot of friends, there are usually about five of us who hang around together, which is quite cool. We hang around outside school talking, or on the weekend we might go ice-skating or to the cinema.

I've got two brothers, who are 14 and 19 years old, and a sister, who is aged 13. Sometimes there can be a lot of arguments at home, but it's not too bad. Me and my brothers and sister fight over the computer or sometimes someone might touch someone else by accident and then that person will hit them back. My mum will try to stop us fighting and things always settle down after not talking for a while. At the end of the day, we all love each other, and that makes me feel better about life generally.

The time when I'm happiest is probably when I'm with my friends at school at lunch and break-time. I know my friends will always be there for me, and it makes me feel more confident about life.

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