BBC Radio 4:Catherine Pepinster - 09/04/2018


It’s getting to the end of the Easter school holidays which means exams are looming. According to a news report this weekend You Tube video bloggers, or vloggers, have been uploading speeded-up clips of people studying and revising 15 hours a day. And just after reading about that kind of pressure being put on young people, I came across a lengthy report about how the emphasis to do well doesn’t stop end when you leave school. According to psychologists at Bath University, millennials have become Generation Perfection, putting huge pressure on themselves to succeed and make money, and this leads to them never being satisfied.

No wonder that the newly published Prince’s Trust survey shows that young people’s happiness in all areas of their lives has never been lower. Almost half of the young people questioned said they couldn’t cope with setbacks in life and one in four felt hopeless.

I was struck that the Prince’s Trust said that young people need to be shown it’s worth having high aspirations about earning a good living and doing well in a career. But even if earning a good living is important, it doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. The evidence points to the constant drive to do well and focusing on material achievement being the problem. So could there be another route to happiness?

The 1776 American Declaration of Independence made the pursuit of happiness one of the goals of the New World, via material prosperity but also through thriving and well-being. The American founding fathers and other eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers believed that happiness has its roots in human beings’ inherent capacity for reason and desire for material security, and that reason was something given to humanity by God so that they could pursue individual and collective improvement.

That idea of collective improvement can also be found in ancient Greek thinking. Rather than focus on material achievement and security, the philosopher Aristotle suggested that happiness does not come from achieving goals, whether passing exams or getting a pay rise, but by living well. He argued that living well is practising the virtues – virtues such as courage, wisdom and prudence. It was an idea embraced by Thomas Aquinas and still inspires Christian thinkers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, today.

Practising virtues cannot take place in isolation. Attempting to be virtuous is about collective activity and being part of a community. If someone focuses their attention on others, rather than solely personal achievement and ambition, then the pressure is off. And that is surely a good starting point for feeling a lot more contented – even if you still haven’t finished all your exam revision.

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