Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'Happiness lessons' will only add to children's angst

Happiness is a positive whoop of warm joy that fades and recedes as fast as it came
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The Independent Online

Anything that helps our kids to survive the intimidating landscape we have created for them can only be good. In September, state schools will start to introduce contemporary behavioural therapy techniques to British children, effective tools to confront threats, beatings and inner fears and to nurture self-esteem.

Following my column on bullying last week, I had a pile of letters from parents, teachers and young people describing the increasing violence and cruelty within educational establishments. Some children are lucky enough to be in schools with an ethos of peace and respect, and not all young ones are either victims or perpetrators of misery, but too many are one or both. The age at which innocence vanishes is getting younger.

At least three children in 30 experience serious, deep melancholy, and since 1980, the average age of the onset of clinically recognised mental illnesses has fallen dramatically - 14 is now the age at which it first strikes. This is the debris our developed country generates. Family breakdowns, rising economic inequalities, turf battles, drugs, ethnic and race hatreds, criminal greed, addictive attachments to consumerism, body fascism and unrestrained sexuality drive children to the edge.

Pre-emptive measures to heal and fortify the vulnerable young are good for them and good for our society. Only don't give them "happiness lessons" which will surely make them more despondent, thus adding to the sum total of national angst and discontent. Teach pupils to be strong, to hold on when they find themselves dissolving, to stand-up against humiliation and assaults, to not be afraid, to feel worthy and optimistic. But not how to be happy.

I don't believe anyone can claim to be happy. Happiness is not that non-specific mood when you feel fine, at peace, not hassled or dejected. It is a positive whoop of warm joy, unexpected delight that fades and recedes as fast as it came, like a rainbow, leaving faint traces on the heart. Going in chase of happiness or planning for it meticulously is always likely to end in tears of disappointment and a collapse of self-esteem. It is as futile and self-defeating as those other desperate yearnings and quests for perfection.

What is the matter with me? Why can't I reach this goal? It must be me, my fault, I'm doing something wrong. Soon, I imagine, stern nannies will appear on our small screens to take persistent gloomies in hand. David Cameron already promises to deliver more happiness to our doorsteps and crafty gurus fill the shelves with guidebooks to elation - the most recent to appear include The Pursuit of Happiness, Secrets of Happiness, The Architecture of Happiness, Stumbling on Happiness.

The last title contains the whole truth, no need for the book. Happiness is something that just happens. Most of us, if our senses are awake, live through a range of emotional ups and downs in the course of a day. Here is my edited "happiness" diary since last Thursday:

My one-woman show in beautiful Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson, is much appreciated by a Middle England audience. Later, as I sit on a hotel bed eating a cheap kebab with my director, I feel exceptionally happy. Wake up pensive - it is 7/7 after all. Mood lifts at Tate Modern surrounded by the sweeping colours of Kandinsky's paintings. Then suddenly a dive, anxieties invade the bliss, knock it out. Why am I no longer asked on to anything substantial by the BBC? Am I too old, too controversial, hated by the editors? By Saturday family has restored some cheer, and I go off with a very lively friend to see The Overwhelming at the National, a devastating play about the Rwanda genocide. I come away overwhelmed. Never again is a meaningless mantra.

Children need to know life is always such a mix, that they will have to cope with disappointments, failures, pain and sorrow, and that they will find contentment only when they stop wanting more and more stuff or money, learn altruism and value themselves. As material wealth goes up, people report feeling less fulfilled. In the US, people with incomes above $12,000 a year are reported to be more tense than those below.

The Henley Centre warns that for the first time since 1994, more people in this country value self-gratification than communal interests. Our next generation is likely to be even more ruthless, selfish, greedy, driven and anxious: convinced happiness itself is a must-have commodity. This hurtle into self-destruction must be stopped. Schools are now taking up the challenge. Good luck to them. They will need it as they face the scorn of adults who made this unendurable culture.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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