What Counts as Happiness for Young People in the Second Decade of the 21st Century? An Exploration

Sutton, Cordelia (2018). What Counts as Happiness for Young People in the Second Decade of the 21st Century? An Exploration. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000d77d


Empirical research on adults’ happiness is growing. However, research on children’s and young people’s happiness is limited, and has been dominated by adult-led, quantitative studies that emphasise measuring happiness for social comparison and indicators of progress. However, such approaches assume that happiness is the same for everyone, and do not allow for children’s own perspectives of happiness. My PhD thesis has provided a critical new insight into young people’s happiness, using a qualitative approach to allow young people to explore aspects of what happiness means for them. Data was collected in three phases with 42 young people aged 13-16 from a large, multicultural school in South Central England. I devised a new method of “happiness maps”, inviting young people to consider what aspects of their lives they associated with happiness, plotting these on their happiness maps within a series of concentric circles designed to indicate their relative significance. Family members, friends, music, food, sport and pets were the most frequently mentioned aspects within a wide and varied conceptualisation of happiness. However, relationships with family and friends contributed to young people’s happiness and unhappiness. Follow-up discussion groups and individual interviews further explored the meanings the young people attached to happiness, how important happiness was to them, and how they understood how their happiness changed over time. I analysed the data using broad principles of constructivist grounded theory. New findings from my study revealed that happiness was individually variable, complex, and needs to be understood within the context of young people’s lives. Discussion of happiness encompassed unhappiness, which is absent from many existing models. Young people indicated that they felt under pressure to be happy. Importantly, in some cases, the pressure to be happy resulted in pretending to be happy to assuage the concerns of others, despite considerable emotional cost to themselves.

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