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Why Happy Countries Have Sad Kids

Two studies by United Nations organizations found a paradox. A number of the countries that led the world in signs of happiness—quality of life, education and healthcare—also led in the number of their young people who suffered from depression and anxiety.

When the UN released its annual World Happiness Report, the usual suspects were again at the top of the list—Nordic countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden as well as New Zealand and Australia. In the meantime, another study by the World Health Organization on the ratio of citizens affected by mental health disorders showed that the same countries that were at the top of the Happiness Report also had high ratios of young people who suffered from some mental health problem.

These two reports have baffled mental health experts. When poor countries have mental health problems, those problems are explained by poverty. But when wealth countries have a high proportion of mental health issues by young people, experts have trouble locating the source of the problem.

“People in the Nordic region are generally happier than people in other regions of the world, but despite this there are in fact also people in in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden who report to be struggling or even suffering,” stated the authors of a report that was published by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The ratio was highest among young people under twenty-three.

Another theory of why young people are unhappy comes to mind. The more a country achieves stability and happiness, the more freedom it has to enjoy that happiness. Along with freedom comes responsibility. People tend to want their human rights, but the more rights they attain, they more they want to enjoy those rights and avoid the responsibility. You never see people protesting for more responsibility.

Part of the responsibility is the raising of kids. In the so-called happy countries, adults are primarily motivated to promote the trappings of success and well-being such as free healthcare and low-cost education. However, they may be less interested in developing good parenting skills and making sure their children are achieving the attention and guidance they need. It is a truism that rich parents often give their children everything in the way of material comfort, but they are deficient in providing them with the love and caring they need.

This lack of attention and care are particularly crucial in the first two years of life. Children need maternal care in those two years more than they will ever need it later on. If they don’t get this early attention and a secure attachment with the maternal figure, they will suffer from depression and anxiety from that point on. Children seem to need to develop a buffer against the exigencies of existence, and this first to year is when they develop this buffer.

Today, adult women seem to be more concerned with their careers than with providing good parenting for their children. They take a six-month or in rare cases one-year leave from their jobs and then are anxious to get back, ignoring the fact that their young child will suffer from abandonment depression and anxiety. Even if they leave them with a full-time sitter, the child will experience this rejection and abandonment by their primary caretaker.

Health professionals and others who read this will be upset. The trend today is “don’t blame parents! Or, “don’t blame mothers!” Looking at how parents raise their children is now often vised as an insult to parents. Health professional do not want to upset mothers or parents, so they look elsewhere for causes of child depression and anxiety (such as the poverty index). The emphasis, again, is on the happiness of mothers and parents, not on the happiness of kids.

Parents can and often do find excuses and rationalizations to defend themselves for paying inadequate attention to their kids. They cite statistics that purport to show that kids in daycare do as well as kids who have a full-time maternal caretaker. They cite statistics that say working parents can still find time to spend quality time with kids. Statistics can always be skewed to tell whatever story you want them to tell.

The result of this trend not to blame parents or look objectively at parenting is that research into such matters is not encouraged and not adequately talked about. Instead, this research is often kicked under the curb.

If our kids are suffering from depression and anxiety despite a seeming high quality of life, we need to put our own feelings aside and do whatever it takes to provide for our kids.

Why Happy Countries Have Sad Kids

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2019). Why Happy Countries Have Sad Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Feb 2019
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