It is a mistake to expect children to be happy, worse still to insist on it. Childhood is navigated via rage and disappointment as much as by joy and pleasure, often in quick succession. Nevertheless, a five-year-old knows about as much as there is to know about happiness. In their love of the outdoors, their easy physicality and fascination with everyday objects, young children already understand the very things that adults struggle to learn. Positive psychologists tell us we should avoid ‘comparing’ ourselves to others, which—one might presume—would include avoiding enforced comparisons between children who are only a couple of years out of their nappies. But there remains a serious blind-spot. Economists assume that competition is something that occurs spontaneously in the market, a natural force that public policy can prepare us for but not alleviate or shape. Positive psychologists reduce anxiety and depression to defects of behaviour or cognitive biases. But what if people are being socially compelled to compete, perform and prove themselves? And what if that compulsion, far from being ‘natural’ or even a diffuse cultural effect of ‘late capitalism’ or ‘modernity’, is in fact deliberately designed by policy-makers who seek to bolster their power with more and more data?
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