This post is by Natasha Parker, Global Action Plan’s head of wellbeing and consumerism
Young people are growing up in an unprecedented time of hyper-consumerism, where ubiquitous advertising compels them to be preoccupied with how they look, what they own and to chase approval from peers through social media. They are relentlessly targeted with these messages from the moment they wake up to the time they go to bed; as they walk past billboards, work on their laptops, watch TV and, of course, browse their ever present mobile phones.
Yet decades of research have demonstrated that the more we prioritise these types of ‘extrinsic’ aspirations, the more likely we are to suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and loneliness. This culture of ‘looks, likes and shopping’ is also having a devastating impact on the planet, driving people to put the acquisition of material goods centre stage in their lives. It becomes ever more important to have the latest clothes, make-up, phones and technology, then, later in life, the big house, the expensive car and the luxury holidays.
An illusion of infinite resources
To continue consuming as those of us in the UK do relies on the illusion of infinite resources. The reality is that we live on a planet with finite resources, which we are already using 70 per cent faster than the living world can regenerate. We cannot ignore ecological limits and the challenges that lie ahead for the younger generation to live within them. The generation currently taking part in the climate strikes (those born between 1997 and 2012) will have a carbon allowance six times less than their baby boomer grandparents (born between 1946 to 1964).
So how can we help young people to resist this version of the good life? At Global Action Plan we believe the answer lies in a revolution of values and we’re supporting schools to be at the centre of it. Values are our beliefs about what is important and what makes a good life. They shape our long term aspirations and our short term goals. Whether we strive in life for a high salary and a flash car, or for a job that helps people and makes a difference depends on how important we believe those outcomes to be.
Strategies for a flourishing life are also good for the planet
Schools can play an important role in helping young people aspire to healthier goals that are better for their wellbeing and have a lower carbon footprint. Setting ‘intrinsically motivated’ goals that place importance on personal growth, strong relationships and contribution to wider communities have been shown to be much more successful strategies for a flourishing life while also encouraging us to take care of each other and our planet.
Of course, it is important to us all to have financial security, to feel confident in how we look and to have a sense of status among our peers. But these extrinsic values become harmful when they are excessively prioritised and crowd out the intrinsic goals that are better at meeting our real psychological needs.
It can be challenging for schools to compete with enticing visions of success promoted by celebrities and influencers. Sophisticated persuasive design techniques keep young people (and not so young people) hooked on their smartphones and social media platforms, ensuring maximum exposure to messages that encourage them to buy their way to happiness.
Five ways to wellbeing
Global Action Plan has published a new paper laying out a theoretical framework to help school leaders consider the values they promote to support young people to be more resilient to an increasingly toxic consumerist culture, whilst embedding the values of responsible citizenship and environmental stewardship. Schools also have free access to the ground-breaking Goals for Good course which gives teachers the tools to help their students challenge traditional notions of success and explore what really makes them happy.
Drawing from research into positive psychology, goal setting and sustainable lifestyles, the course helps young people to set goals for themselves grounded in the five ways to wellbeing: connect, take notice, keep learning, be active, give. Students are also encouraged to consider the impacts of their goals beyond themselves, supporting them to become active citizens. The course has recently been tested and preliminary results revealed a significant increase in the extent to which participants prioritised intrinsic over extrinsic goals. And these changes were maintained two months later.
As the place where young people spend the majority of their time, schools are uniquely placed to shape the development of values people will prioritise throughout their lives. There’s no such thing as a values-free or values-neutral environment, in schools or anywhere else, and these institutions will consciously or unconsciously be influencing what young people see as normal, acceptable and desirable goals in life. That’s why we want to work with school leaders, and anyone with an interest in education, to spark a values revolution and shape a society that thrives within our planet’s boundaries.