LONDON – Japanese teens are lagging behind many other countries in well-being and happiness. That is one of the conclusions of a new report on educational well-being recently published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — with the key finding that out of 35 OECD countries, only South Korean and Turkish teens rated their life satisfaction lower than Japanese young people.
Japanese teens were also above average on overall anxiety indicators and well below average for motivation to succeed in school. This finding, part of a survey of 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 countries, indicates a worrying pattern throughout the world: Advanced economies have lower levels of well-being than might be expected from their material prosperity and freedoms — particularly among young people.
The OECD’s report is just the latest in an emerging literature of global youth studies on this issue. Last year, the Varkey Foundation published the “Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey” about the attitudes of young people aged 15 to 21 in 20 major countries.
Although the report found that young people globally had a largely internationalist and liberal outlook, it also showed that young people in Japan had the lowest mental well-being of all countries surveyed — particularly worrying given that the figures for 2014 gave suicide as the leading cause of death among Japan’s 10- to 19-year-olds.
Japanese young people were also found to have the lowest level of net happiness of all 20 countries polled, and more Japanese young people said they were unhappy (17 percent) than any other country apart from South Korea (also at 17 percent).
On any interpretation, these findings give cause for concern — prompting the urgent question of how the well-being of Japanese teens can be improved. It emerges that the picture is complex and the answers not obvious.
First, the findings of the OECD report show that the level of educational achievement, the amount of time children spend studying and the frequency of testing are all independent of well-being. In other words, none of these factors in themselves contribute to low well-being among children. Instead, the report suggests that it is the context in which education is facilitated and supported that is important.
One key finding is that students whose parents reported spending time talking to their child daily or eating a main meal with their child at the table were between 22 percent and 39 percent more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction. Victimization of bullying is also less frequently reported by students who said that they receive parental support when facing difficulties at school. In addition, students in schools with above-average levels of well-being reported much more support given by teachers than those in schools with below-average well-being.
Clearly, support in facing the challenging environment of school plays a significant role in well-being. But there are good reasons to think that additional factors are in play, and the Generation Z report throws light on the context of these OECD findings.
The report measured youth satisfaction on a wide range of metrics, including happiness with life, mental well-being and emotional well-being, and unexpectedly found that young people in four countries — China, India, Nigeria and Indonesia — placed consistently at or near the top of the satisfaction scale for all three areas.
Why? Three main factors were discovered. First, China, Indonesia and India also had the strongest family relationships — which raises the possibility that overall well-being may be a function of a child’s general relationship with family, rather than simply as it relates to school support.
Second, of all countries surveyed, only China, Indonesia, India and Nigeria thought overall that the world was not becoming a worse place. Related to this, it was also clear that the top countries for well-being tended to be emerging economies. It may be that perceived opportunities for expansion has a positive impact on well-being. Meanwhile, in advanced economies like Japan’s, there may be a dimly discernible sense that the economy has “peaked” and that there is little room to advance.
Closely connected clues to the reason for Japan’s low mental well-being are found in some of the other Japanese youth responses. Japanese teens reported that “working hard/helping myself get on in life” was their most important value — and more chose this than in any other country except South Korea (also low in the well-being stakes).
Japanese teens were also the least likely of all 20 countries to think that making a contribution to wider society was important. It is easy to see how these beliefs, in combination with a lack of opportunity, could produce a pessimistic state about one’s chances of leading a successful or meaningful life.
While we can do little as individuals to affect the state of the economy, it is possible to consider how our family relationships, the demands of our culture and education system, and our opportunities for rest, impact our well-being. Happiness may not be reducible to a list of prescriptive conditions, but there is considerable room for evidence-based policy to guide Japanese institutions in promoting well-being as much as possible, and seeking to cushion the impact of areas that remain outside their influence.
Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation.