Liah Greenfeld Ph.D.

The Modern Mind

Choices, Children, and Happiness

Choices do not contribute to happiness; children do.

Posted Oct 27, 2013

As has happened from time to time, I am interrupting the exploration of the relationship between mind, culture, and mental disease, which is the focus of this blog, to react to an event – this time, the screening of the current episode of the remarkable “Up” film project, “56 Up.” In 1964, the series interviewed a group of 14 seven-year-olds from different backgrounds and then followed them up every seven years. Today, they are 56. The project began as an examination of the British class system, which appeared to be disintegrating. Michael Apted, who was a young researcher on the team of the first episode, but directed the subsequent episodes every 7 years since, said in an interview this year:

"We weren't interested in the personalities so much… We needed children ... who weren't fazed by us, who could speak to us, but we weren't looking for any particular characteristics. We were just interested in their backgrounds.

"[T]he idea was that we would get some 7-year-old children from different backgrounds — from rich backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from rural backgrounds ... and have them talk about their lives ... and see whether that told us anything. And of course it did, because it was both very funny and also chilling, showing that, in fact, the class system was very active, and that people in certain backgrounds had a real vision of their future, and others really didn't know what day it was."

I became aware of the series only seven years ago, when “49 Up” was screened, but then rented all the earlier episodes and have been looking forward to the new one. The series is fascinating. Like any life, the lives of the 14 subjects have had their ups and downs, but it is possible today, when they are approaching the end of their sixth decade, have their reproductive – and, in a large degree, productive – years behind them, when several of them are already retired and all have settled into their personalities that are unlikely to change significantly anymore, to see the extent to which they are satisfied with their life as a whole. And the conclusion is surprising, counterintuitive, and distressing.

Without a single exception, it seems, the subjective sense of life-satisfaction of the individuals in the film is the inverse of their class background. The “happy” people, satisfied with and visibly enjoying their lives turn to be those who “really didn’t know what day it was,” when they were seven, people from poor backgrounds (some of whom grew up in children’s homes), who studied in “bad” schools and left them early, or, even if finished, did not continue their education, people who did not have a clear career path, but landed in whatever occupation that became theirs by accident. People from upper classes, in distinction, those who, at seven “had a real vision of their future,” therefore looking forward and with confidence to it, who went to good schools and from them on to universities, which, as they all expected, would lead to fulfilling careers – these privileged people have led more or less tortured lives, and whatever satisfaction they derived from them has not been due to the benefits of being born into affluent, high status families and the many choices their privileged background offered to them.

The lives of the participants in the series, observed every seven years from the age of seven to 56 by now, suggest that, in general, the number of choices (or opportunities) one has is inversely proportional to the sense of wellbeing. This confirms the conclusion of my book, Mind, Modernity, Madness, based on historical evidence from five countries (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the USA) as well as current epidemiological research, that the sense of deep unhappiness (mental dis-ease, or illness, such as depression) is directly related to the number of choices a society offers and primarily affects those groups for whom these choices are real, rather than only imagined – therefore, the upper social strata with more resources. The one mentally-ill person in the “Up” series (corresponding to 7% prevalence of such mental illness in Britain) indeed comes from a “better” background and appears in the first episode as a charming, bright, excited child with excellent prospects. Later we follow him in his “downward drift” to homelessness and life on welfare, so characteristic of schizophrenics, in particular.

On the other hand, the sense of well-being and satisfaction with life seems to be directly related to the number of children/grandchildren one has, and that irrespective of the circumstances in which the children are born (i.e., in poor or affluent conditions, in or out of wedlock, etc.). The denser is one’s family life, and, in particular, the more young children are in it, the fuller and happier it appears to be. The happiest of the 56-year-olds in the series are certainly the people directly involved with their grandchildren (all from the poorest backgrounds), and happier people from the well-off families clearly owe their sense of fulfillment to their family life much more than anything else.

This makes me think: our society, just like Britain, lays stress on choices, rather than children. Enlightened parents go to great lengths to offer their children as many choices as possible, one of these choices being the choice not to have children, while to pressure one’s child to have children is considered extremely backward and unenlightened. Other societies still emphasize children over choices. We consider such societies repressive, narrow-minded. Don’t we deceive ourselves?     

 Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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