There’s so much pressure to excel, be productive, organized, skinny, popular, assertive, work-ready, oh and all of this done with a smile. The truth is that it’s making us miserable, including your kids. Maybe even you…
I do a lot of research and read many studies; most often on subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction (the scientific word for happiness) in employees, students and regular folks like you and I. Most recently, I’ve been working on a study of over 20,000 students in the UAE. We’ve been looking at the data from the 2018 PISA achievement exam. Your kids might have done it, they would have been 15 at the time. Here is what we found (and yes, we are going to publish this in the coming months).
- The life satisfaction of young people across the UAE dropped from 2015 to 2018; that is, more young people said they were unsatisfied with their lives as a whole. You know what happened in 2020. The next round of data collection is in 2022. We can expect those scores to be lower. Before we panic, that decrease is unfortunately normal in young people around the world.
- In both 2015 and 2018, life satisfaction as well as mental health (that is, whether young people feel symptoms of depression and anxiety) was worse in young girls compared to young boys across the UAE. This too, is also the norm globally.
- On the bright side for girls, they perform at a much higher level academically than boys – also a global finding, including in the UAE and this has been true for many years.
- There were major differences by curriculum, such that some curriculums had lower mental health outcomes than others. This was related to high pressure environments and not the curricula itself.
- The smaller emirates, Fujairah especially, had some of the happiest kids. Dubai and Abu Dhabi – perhaps it’s urban living – had lower scores.
- Of greatest importance? Irrespective of emirate, gender, socioeconomic status, public/private school or curriculum type, the kids with the lowest mental health issues AND highest happiness, also had the highest academic performance regardless of where and who they were.
What does this all mean?
Performance, mental health and happiness are neither trade-offs, nor forced choices. They mutually assist one another; in fact, a lack of happiness and mental health issues make performance harder to achieve, while high happiness and low mental health issues make performance easier. No school has been able to crack the formula for all three at the same time, but some students certainly have and our findings are statistically significant in showing that they have, with each factor supporting the other.
That young people struggle and still perform well is commendable, but in light of the fact that adults are increasingly struggling with mental health issues and workplace burnout, encouraging the same behaviors in young people doesn’t seem to be a workable long-term strategy. Telling them to toughen up is also not the answer, neither is convincing them that the world is so overly competitive that the only way forward is to study for hours and beat out the competition at all costs because they alone, bear those costs. And anyways, most people’s lives aren’t in peril because they aren’t the best. My life is certainly not that way. Yours probably isn’t either.
For all of the mental health awareness raising and wellbeing blah-blah, we haven’t done much as a society to take actions towards it. And here is why: we all secretly believe that if we were to take wellbeing seriously and others didn’t, we would fall behind. We worry that if we take breaks and holidays, but our colleagues and peers don’t, our status will fall. Our own anxiety is fueling our anxiety. We know it’s absurd but can’t quite seem to do otherwise.
That needs to stop and here is where you come in. Be bold in your ambitions for your children, studying and achievement are good, but a lack of sleep, fear of disappointing one’s parents, and teeth grinding are not. Structure your kids time so they have recreational pursuits in which to learn life skills (like losing, really: it’s a skill), as well as down time in which they lounge around, unplug the wifi for one hour a day and read a book. Let them hang with friends, just like you do, and enforce bedtime hours (for you too) even in the teenage years. Finally, tell your kids, even the 17 year old ones, that you love them as well as like them and that a random B or C grade is not the end of the world.
Moms. You know what to do…. your kids will be fine.
Dr. Louise Lambert is the Director of Happiness and Wellbeing Programs @HappinessMatters!