The key to youth happiness: strong relationships

Zofia Niemtus
A series of insightful discussions have recently been held by the teachers at the British International School Shanghai, Puxi, on how to "make a happy young person."
Zofia Niemtus

What does it mean to be happy, exactly? Solving the happiness puzzle has been the work of philosophers for centuries. Not surprisingly, it is also a question keeping parents and teachers awake at night. What does it take to make a happy young person?

UNICEF's 2020 Worlds of Influence report compares the "health, skills and happiness" of children in the world's 41 richest countries, with some thought- provoking findings. Strong links were found between happiness and spending time with family, for example, and playing outside was also found to have a positive relationship to happiness.

"In 2019, we were very worried because mental health problems had already increased a lot in the previous 10 years in young people in the United Kingdom," says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Researchers have found that academic pressure can play a significant negative role. Blakemore says, "If you ask young people what they find most stressful in their lives, they don't say social media, they say fear of failure and exam stress." They also worry about peer problems, so good-quality peer relationships (as well as good relationships with family) are protective against mental health problems."

It is a point of view echoed by school leaders at Nord Anglia Education, the international education organization.

The key to youth happiness: strong relationships

"For me, you can't understand happiness unless you have strong relationships and we have a duty of care to find out what makes our students happy," says Sarah Osborne-James, executive director of Hamelin-Laie International School in Barcelona, part of Nord Anglia.

"I always look for teachers who are passionate enough to want to get to know their students on a personal level and have the drive to know what's going to make their students happy.

"We carry out student surveys to give feedback to teachers, and one of the questions is around how happy they are, along with questions around trust and being able to talk to their teacher. That sense of safety and happiness is so important for their wellbeing."

For Rosy Clark, principal of Nord Anglia's school in Jakarta, Indonesia, Professor Layard's research rings true.

"When we talk about happiness, I don't think that means contentment," she says. "That's not good enough. Happiness means flourishing. We want all our students to genuinely flourish in school, and the relationship with the teacher is all-important in that. It's got to be positive, respectful, caring."

Clark and her Jakarta team have focused "a huge amount of time on social and personal development," she explains.

This included adding daily circle times to the schedule when students returned to school to "readjust to being in a community outside of the home and redevelop those personal social skills" by sharing feelings and listening to others.

(Zofia Niemtus is an education journalist.)

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