Byline: JOHN NAISH
OVER the past 30 years, our culture has become more obsessed with pursuing an elusive human state called happiness. We are convinced it offers an antidote to depression and other mental health troubles.
This butterfly chase has culminated in David Cameron's annual 'happiness survey', which asks 200,000 householders questions like: 'Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?' -- at a reported cost of [pounds sterling]2 million.
But some experts think this emphasis is wrong, and say the pursuit of happiness has created the problems it was designed to protect against. Young people now expect easy success as an emotional human right, and crumble into suicidal depression when faced with adversity.
Indeed, suicide among teenagers and young adults has increased three-fold in Britain since 1970, according to figures from the United Nations. Young people from the most affluent and protective backgrounds are the most at risk.
An increasing body of research suggests that pursuing happiness can prove futile at best. Last year Yale University found that adults who followed tips in magazines on how to be happy often felt worse -- due to disappointment at the 'you can be happier' promise proving hollow.
But a review of happiness studies by Nicholas Emler, a professor of psychology at Surrey University, concludes that we seem born with our personal level of self-esteem pre-set for life. No amount of selfhelp books can change it, he says.
MANY experts believe what really matters is resilience -- the ability to take life's knocks on the chin, pick yourself up and carry on. A leading expert in the study of resilience, Professor Michael Rutter of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London, believes adversity is like a vaccine -- a bit of it when people are young can build up defences for later.
'There is evidence that stress can cause strengthening in some people,' he says. This also has a physical effect, he adds, as exposure to emotional pressure can make the body's nervous and hormonal systems more resistant to stress.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has followed thousands of people from young adulthood into old age. It found those who maintained a grittily positive view of life were fitter and healthier in their older years.
In Britain's older generation we see this in the 'Blitz spirit', the belief that adversity breeds strength. 'Resilience' is the new buzz-word.
Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, of the University of Pennsylvania, have come up with the concept of 'resilience coaching'. In their 2002 book The Resilience Factor, they reject the idea that 'positive thinking' can beat adversity and say we need to learn 'accurate thinking' instead.
This idea has reached the political arena, with Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham recently urging Mr Cameron to scrap happiness surveys and focus on helping people cope with life's troughs, especially in the recession. 'Resilience is the bottom line,' he declared.
Resilience teaching is already on the curriculum at 46 state schools in Hertfordshire. One child to benefit is an 11-year-old I'll call Adam, who suffered serious bullying at the primary school he left last year.
His senior school, Longdean in Hemel Hempstead, is coaching him to fight back -- by learning to have the strength of character to become immune to it. He is one of 6,000 mainly 11-year-olds who have received 18 hours of resilience lessons per year since 2007.
He believes it's made a real difference, saying: 'I have learnt how to bounce back from the bullying, and I have even been helping my friends with this kind of thing.'