What is happiness and how do you get it?

Family riding bikes together

Family riding bikes together - Credit: Getty Images/Polka Dot RF

When Dr Gundi Knies completed a ground-breaking study into what makes children happy she discovered one or two things that might have come as a surprise to some people.

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- Credit: Archant

As long as they were not deprived of things other children around them enjoyed, it was not material possessions and parental wealth that made youngsters content but the simple things in life, such as having close friends, a stable home life and playing sport.

Other things that increased a child’s wellbeing were a healthy lifestyle and diet, a sense of belonging, good behaviour from classmates at school, having friends over for tea, a bedroom of their own and a bike or other leisure equipment.

Girls aged 10-12 were the happiest of those studied by Dr Knies, a research fellow at the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, but those aged 12-15 were the least happy, often because they became dissatisfied with their looks at that age.

Dr Knies, it has to be said, was not surprised by the findings of her 2012 study, which was based on 5,000 children aged 10-15 from families with an average monthly income of £1,144. But what happened afterwards was slightly more unexpected.


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The academic found herself thrust into a world far removed from the number-crunching, scientific environment she was used to when her research ended up informing a theatre production about children’s happiness.

The collaboration, inspired by reports from UNICEF and The Children’s Society that raised concerns over young people’s wellbeing in the UK, brought together her and other academics ? including a neuroscientist and human geographer ? with a company of young artists aged 12-19.

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The result is The Happiness Project, a piece of contemporary theatre using moving, autobiographical stories to ask one of humanity’s hardest-to-answer questions: what is happiness and how do you get it?

The show was unveiled on a sell-out run in Edinburgh this summer and will be performed at London’s Roundhouse from November 3-14.

Through working closely with the academics, the production aims to discover a place where scientific research and personal real-life experience meet.

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- Credit: PA

As part of the project, a series of workshops was held with visiting artists, specialists and the scientists involved, including Dr Knies.

Those involved in The Happiness Project also interviewed members of the public, watched stand-up comedy, recorded their laughs, gave each other gifts, looked at statistics, discussed politics and power, made music, played music and even built a giant brain ? all in the hope of understanding more about themselves and their relationships with others.

“For me, as a scientist who doesn’t generally work in this way with children, I found it a fascinating and interesting project,” says Dr Knies. “Meeting the artistic leadership team at the Roundhouse to brainstorm ideas was so refreshing. I would never have thought that there were so many ways to translate research findings into performing art. I led a workshop with the young people, talking them through my research, getting them to fill in one of our questionnaires themselves and doing an interactive activity around survey responses on what one thing in life young people would change to make their life better.

“It was also interesting, for me as a social scientist, to interact with a neuroscientist and human geographer, among others, who are looking at the same issue but from a different angle. It’s a great example of how art and science can work together.

“I was invited three times to come back with the group and see what they had been doing. It was interesting to see how the children involved changed over time,” she says. “Some who had been demanding in earlier workshops became more balanced and others had grown into strong personalities.”

Some of the academics involved have parts in the performance but that wasn’t possible for Dr Knies, for logistical reasons. But she is looking forward to seeing the production.

“I’m hoping to go down on November 3, which just happens to be my birthday,” she says. “I know the story will focus on the idea that there is a young person setting out to learn more about happiness, and this is explored with her friends.”

Among Dr Knies’s aims when she began her study were contributing to academic research and informing policy about how to increase national wellbeing for children. A theatre production was not on her radar, and while she accepts it won’t “change the world” and bring every child who sees it instant happiness, it will at least shine a light on an area that should concern us all.

“I will watch the show with a particular focus on where my input has been translated into the show, but from the first snippets I am equally curious to see whether the young people will reach a conclusion on whether ‘having’ or ‘being’ is more important for young people’s wellbeing,” she says.

“I hope the play will encourage viewers to think about how they can contribute to increasing their own happiness and that of others.”

To find out more visit www.roundhouse.org.uk

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