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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


More Happiness Less Crime

Since the outbreak of riots and looting in London and other cities in the UK, politicians and commentators have blamed the lack of morals in the younger generation, single-parent (specifically single-mother) families, lack of fathers and “black” culture (from a right wing perspective); and government cuts, closure of youth services, inequality and poor moral leadership from the top (bankers, MPs, the police and press) from the left.

I favour the latter group, but maybe many of these have had a part to play; maybe some represent aspects of an underlying malaise that affects British youth – a malaise called unhappiness.

Bill McCarthy, a UC-Davis sociology professor, and Teresa Casey, a postdoctoral researcher at UC-Davis, have recently presented their new study at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. "Get Happy! Positive Emotion, Depression, and Juvenile Crime” suggests that, in addition to their other benefits, programmes and policies that increase childhood and adolescent happiness could deter nonviolent crime and drug use.

The authors used data from nearly 15,000 seventh- to ninth-grade students in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescents ever undertaken, over two years (1995 and 1996). They found that about 29% of the young people surveyed reported having committed at least one criminal offence, and 18% said that they had used at least one illegal drug. The researchers then correlated these reports with self-assessments of emotional well-being. They claim theirs is the first study to investigate the association of happiness with juvenile crime. Unlike positive psychologists, sociologists have spent little time studying the consequences of happiness – or lack of it.

McCarthy and Casey’s research found that happier adolescents were less likely to report involvement in crime or drug use. Adolescents with minor, or nonclinical, depression had significantly higher odds of engaging in such activities. They argue that positive emotions also have a role: "We hypothesize that the benefits of happiness— from strong bonds with others, a positive self-image, and the development of socially valued cognitive and behavioral skills— reinforce a decision-making approach that is informed by positive emotions.”

The study also found that changes in emotions over time matter. Adolescents whose happiness levels decreased or depression levels increased over a one-year period were more likely to be involved in crime and to use drugs. The odds of drug use were notably lower for youth who reported that they were more often happy than depressed, and were substantially higher for those who indicated that they were more depressed than happy.

But what needs do young people need to have met in order to have a reasonable level of wellbeing? Back to the positive psychologists: Ed Diener from the University of Illinois has taken a new look at an old theory – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, first published in 1954. Maslow claimed that humans need their physiological needs (food, shelter etc) to be met first, followed by safety; only then can social needs for love, belonging and self-esteem be met; with “self-actualisation” the pinnacle of his famous pyramid.

Diener, also a senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, helped design the Gallup World Poll, a landmark survey on well-being with 60,865 participants from 123 countries, conducted from 2005 to 2010. His results agreed with Maslow’s view that there are human needs that apply regardless of culture, but not with his ordering of these needs. "Instead of working from the bottom up, to be happy we need all of them at once - and the needs that are most linked with everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. Our troubles, conversely, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. It’s only in retrospect, when we look back on the quality of our lives thus far, that basic needs become significant indicators for well-being.”

Ed Diener believes that public policymakers should take serious note. Since each of Maslow's needs correlates with certain components of happiness, he says "all the needs are important all the time. Our leaders need to think about them from the outset, otherwise they will have no reason to address social and community needs until food and shelter are available to all."

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, who says the study might be a breakthrough, adds: "Governments should take these measures seriously and hold themselves accountable for public policy changes for the well-being of their citizens.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the charities The Place To Be and Kids Company, has written eloquently about how the social needs of some young people in the UK are simply not being met:

“An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply "easily", because they feel they don't actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society's legitimate structures… It's not one occasional attack on dignity, it's a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped.”

Happiness is important; the happiness of young people is crucial – not only to each individual and their growth into a mature, balanced and productive adult, but for the society in which they live alongside all of us. One of the implications Ed Diener draws from his findings is simply this: “The findings indicate that improving individual life must include improving societies.” In his Take Home Message, he says “We also found that societal need fulfillment— particularly of basic needs— has effects independent of an individual’s personal need fulfillment, so that it is beneficial to live in a society with others who have their needs fulfilled. Improving one’s own life is not enough; society-wide improvement is also required.”

Posted by Lucy

The 12 step programme of The Real Secret could raise happiness and lower depressive tendencies in a young person you know. It is available in paperback and kindle format on and as well as other online booksellers; and can be ordered in any bookshop.

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