This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
All work and no play, makes Jack an anxious boy?
There is little doubt that anxiety levels are increasing, worldwide. And no faster than in children and young people. And despite what Fox News and various websites might want us to believe, for most of us the world is also getting safer, and we’re living longer.
So, why are we getting more anxious?
No one knows for sure but some recent research may shed some light on it. Running alongside the increase in anxiety is a change in the level of control children feel they have in their lives. Studies, looking at responses to the same “test” used since 1960 shows over time there has been a dramatic change. The test measures whether we feel we have control over our own lives (internal locus of control), or whether external circumstances control us (external locus of control).
Young people increasingly feel as if external circumstances dictate their lives.
Instagram, how we look, the need to get a good job, good grades, others’ approval (or disapproval), parental expectations, are all external factors. And people who feel like their life is controlled by these external factors consistently feel more depressed and more anxious.
People who feel that their life is more within their own (internal) control are on average happier, feel their life has more meaning and, yes, are less anxious.
However, in his recent blogs and book, psychologist and educationalist, Peter Gray takes this one step further. He suggests that this shift, from internal to external goals, is caused by a world dominated by achievement focussed learning, more class time and testing, and less unstructured time, and “play”.
Anxiety is largely the enemy of play and creativity. It locks up our mind, and stops enjoyment and engagement with the present moment – or what the happiness researchers call “flow”.
While I agree with the idea that our obsession with achievement over creativity, screens over books, and being productive over just “mucking around” is a likely suspect, this view is also a decidedly middle class version.
Because it is also true that there is nothing like poverty and a lack of stable work and housing to make one feel that life is beyond your control.
Not only is this obvious but it also helps to understand how anxiety and depression is seen at higher levels in lower socioeconomic groups – at the same time as it also affects people regardless of their income.
Because while money doesn’t make us happy it does give us choices, but doesn’t free us completely from the weight of expectations.
And we all need to make more time to play, regardless of our age.
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