Happiness and young people’s aspirations: freedom or constraint?

Written by Heather. Posted in News

It’s strange (and slightly disturbing) to think that I’ve been researching young people’s educational and employment choices and aspirations for over a decade now – from my doctorate, that looked at gender and the choice to study maths, to this current project. One thing I’ve noticed is how young people increasingly cite happiness as a rationale for their choices. This happiness is seen by those citing it, both to offer freedom and to guarantee the future. But in this post I want to question this by showing how happiness carries its own constraints.

I’ll start with some data from around 2006, collected as part of the EU-funded PREMA project. This project, like my doctorate, explored gender and post-16 mathematics. It interviewed young people who had opted into maths and those who had opted out. These typical extracts from two White young women show how they take enjoyment as a guarantee of future success:

It’s important to do well in art and art history: ‘because I enjoy it, that’s why it’s important to me. … Like I said I am not one to take something just because I’m good at it. … You know it’s a difficult exam [art history] but because I’m really interested in it I’m sure I’ll do much better than I would otherwise … I think it’s more important to do what you enjoy, that’s all.’

I’m kind of stumped at the minute I don’t, um, I don’t think I want to go to university because, I don’t really think that’s the thing for me. I think I want to take a gap year, and then and then, a job in something … so I don’t really think that I’m taking those three subjects to get a career in that I just picked things that I enjoy … and hopefully, that would be good for everything.

On one level young people choosing what gives them pleasure is something to celebrate – it’s certainly feels better than young people talking about being compelled to follow this or that path. And yet, I hope to show that enjoyment, pleasure and happiness aren’t as innocent as they first appear.

First, as Nikolas Rose has documented, in his book Governing the Soul, we are compelled to make choices in pursuance ‘of meaning, responsibility, a sense of personal achievement, a maximized ‘quality of life’, and hence of work’ (p.104). In other words we have no choice but to choose:

We are obliged to make our lives meaningful by selecting our personal lifestyle from those offered to us in advertising, soap operas, and films, to make sense of our existence by exercising our freedom to choose in a market in which one simultaneously purchases products and services, and assembles, manages and markets oneself.

Ironically having to find fulfilment through our work usually means that we end up working longer hours and protesting less, which Karl Marx might have viewed as a clever ruse of capitalism to make us complicit in our own exploitation.

Second, talk about happiness and enjoyment was usually tied to talk about parents. Here’s one of the PREMA girls again:

[My parents] just tell me to do what I want to do. They want me to be happy I mean they didn’t, of course my dad wanted me to stay, my dad wanted and my mum wanted me to stay at school, and but they said ‘if you didn’t want to do that that’s your choice we’re, we’re going to support you whatever you want obviously. If you don’t want to do that then don’t do it, if you’re not going to be happy doing that then don’t do it because you’re not going to be happy, you’re not going to want to work as hard’. They just want me to do what I’m going to enjoy the most.

This happiness-and-parents-talk recurred among the focus groups with 16 year-olds that Dawn Leslie, Rob Toplis and I carried out last Spring for an evaluation funded by the Institute of Physics (IOP). Here again we can see a general sense of parents as caring and willing to ‘support me in whatever I do’. Here’s one girl and one boy (both Indian):

I think my parents have always just kind of said they will support me in whatever it is I do. My dad always makes jokes like I’m his retirement plan … so my interest in what I kind of want to do has just been all me.

When we … came here to get our reports like with the form tutor and [parents] would like talk about what we want to do in the future … and see if it’s the right option for you.

Thus these young people’s selfhood and happiness were central to their educational and career choices.

Sara Ahmed’s (2009) work on conditional happiness is relevant here. As she writes, the parental desire for their child to do whatever makes them happy appears to ‘offer a certain kind of freedom, as if to say: ‘I don’t want you to be this, or to do that; I just want you to be or to do ‘whatever’ makes you happy.’ You could say that the ‘whatever’ seems to release us from the obligation of the ‘what’. The desire just for the child’s happiness seems to offer the freedom of a certain indifference to the content of a decision’ (p.8). However, happiness is ‘not what might happen, but what will happen if you live your life in the right way. That happiness can signal a ‘right way’ suggests that happiness is already given to certain objects’ (p.2). Ahmed focuses on marriage and children as such ‘happy objects’, but I think that we could apply this to careers – with university, and medicine and other professional careers figuring as ‘happy objects’ for many parents.

If the parents’ happiness is contingent on the child’s, since the parents ‘are already in place … their happiness comes first’ (p.6): the child has an obligation to follow their parents’ ‘happy objects’. As one young man in the IOP research put it, ‘you know your parents are going to be happy with you getting the grades, that’s the motivation to see your parents happy’. The existence of happy-career-objects was most explicitly acknowledged by one young woman who chose the pseudonym Nora:

[At the Parents Careers Evening] you got to like know as well like what your parents, like want you, it’s just like, you know certain stations, my mum got like ‘okay, yeah let’s go there’. And there was some that my mum like didn’t actually really want me to go to coz, there’s this Asian thing [laughter] … [So what did you find out there?] Like it depends on the things like. If they know it is a good job and everything they would be like happy to support you and everything. But like, you know like some things they are just like, ‘yeah that’s a good thing but try something else’.

Here Nora shows her awareness of what she calls ‘an Asian thing’ – that there are some careers that her parents would not be happy about.

The constraints of happiness, while they may push people towards different happy objects, act across gender, class, ethnicity. Happiness is not as happy-go-lucky as it may first appear. I’m looking forward to seeing how happiness figures both in the narratives of our case study celebrities and in the thinking around the futures of young people in our study when we carry out the individual interviews in the summer.


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