When English children are asked how they feel, they’re less happy than children in Ethiopia and Algeria. How can Buddhist ideas of mindfulness and skilful action help young people?
The Good Childhood Report published yesterday by the Children’s Society is a sobering read. It focuses on the ‘subjective wellbeing’ of children between ten and twelve; that is, how they say they’re feeling – leaving aside how affluent or healthy they are. In a table of children in fifteen countries, English children came fourteenth, below Algeria and Ethiopia.
It’s sad news; and we know from elsewhere that mental health difficulties are rising sharply among young people. Bullying is a particular problem and English girls are especially prone to feeling bad about their appearance and confidence. But why is this happening?
Various causes are proposed — our exam-focused education system the influence of advertising and social media and so on. A common thread is that they encourage us to compare ourselves to other people or an idealised view of how things should be — how we should look, what we should achieve or the perfect existence we ought to be having. Psychologists call this ‘the discrepancy monitor’.
Approaches drawn from Buddhism already play a role in efforts to change things for young people. One alternative to constantly comparing is focusing on what’s happening in the present moment, with contentment and acceptance. There’s plenty of research showing how mindfulness practices drawn from Buddhism, foster that attitude. Pausing and accessing a sense of calm can create the space for a young person to start letting go of the anxious belief that they’re fat or ugly, or don’t fit in
What we call ‘skilful action’ is also important. In Buddhist teachings, acting ethically, with generosity and kindness, doesn’t just benefit the recipient; it also helps us. A generous act encourages a more generous state of mind. That inclines us to act generously in the future, and brings a sense of satisfaction. That’s why for Buddhism generosity, truthfulness, kindness and so on, are practices; qualities or skills that we can cultivate and refine.
The increasing pressures on young people and the signs of their growing unhappiness must mean that their emotional wellbeing is no longer something we can take for granted. Such wellbeing has long been the concern of Buddhism; but whatever its role, sources like the Good Childhood Report show the pressing need to explore new approaches if our children are to survive and thrive.