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How to survive and thrive

31 Oct 2016 | Jas Hothi

Jas Hothi summarises the key messages from Professor Tanya Byron's recent Action for Happiness talk about how we can survive and thrive in modern life.

Tanya Byron Wide For Article

"Resilience is the ability to resist or bounce back from adversity and not break" ~ Professor Tanya Byron

Professor Tanya Byron
is a clinical psychologist, journalist, author and broadcaster with an impressive range of experience. Tanya's recent talk for Action for Happiness was titled "How to survive and thrive in the modern world" and was particularly memorable for her delivery and humour, just as much as the great content.

Tanya started by focusing on the overarching theme of wellbeing and helping people to "thrive" in life, rather than just focusing on short-term happiness. Much of Tanya's work has been done with children and teens, and so this is where much of her content was focused.

Afh Tanya 3

Here are some of the key themes and takeaways from Tanya's talk.

Mental health: the challenge

Mental health is still given far less priority than physical health and this needs to change. For example, someone with a broken arm is treated immediately, whereas someone with a mental health issue often has to wait weeks for support - or is told that their condition needs to get more serious to be treated.

How can we think about surviving and thriving as a society if we are failing to help even those who are most vulnerable? Even though progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in the mission to de-stigmatise mental health.

Worrying trends

The UK is near the bottom of the US and European league tables for mental health. In any given year, 20% of adolescents may experience a diagnosable mental health problems and the UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe.

Anxiety has also increased by around 75% in the last 25 years. Previously, according to the data anxiety was expected to first occur around the age of 14-16; now, we are seeing cases of anxiety in children as young as 8.

Shockingly, only 0.7% of the NHS's budget is spent on adolescent and youth mental health services; of this, only 18% is spent on early intervention; the majority of the budget goes towards opening more beds in "Tier 4" services.

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The oft-mentioned term "Resilience" is another key contributor to people being able to thrive, which Professor Byron describes as "the ability to resist or bounce back from adversity, without breaking".

Resilience is built by parental upbringing, but it must be managed in order for individuation to occur later on. As a society we need to focus more on building strengths, and not just focus on fixing problems when things goes wrong. We need to learn more about why, after suffering stressful or traumatic experiences, some people "break" but others do not. 


"Children need to be encouraged to take risks and fail"

Why are more young people struggling?

In the modern world, parents seem less able to use the word "no" when raising children. As a result, there is more demand for immediate gratification. Insecure parents want their children to "like" them and "be their friend". However, this undermines their ability to set boundaries and effectively perform their role as a loving parent.

Parents are also spending more time on praise rather than constructive criticism - another factor which, Professor Byron argues, is leading to a lack of resilience - and increased mental health issues - in children.

Traditionally, those children who were most at risk of suffering from mental health issues were those in poverty, or from underprivileged backgrounds. But in recent years it is often young people from stable, affluent backgrounds who are the ones breaking down and struggling to thrive.

Young people today are more protected and less able to take risks. The media helps contribute to the perception that the world is scarier - but is this really the case? We are constantly bombarded with negative news which affects us - leading to increased anxiety, that cripples and distorts our logical thought towards paranoia.

As such, we try to create a 'safe' environment, but this undermines children's ability to grow and develop resilience. Children need to be encouraged to take risks and fail.

Resilience 400    Acceptance 400

Developing brains

These days around 50% of mental health problems in the population first emerge by around the age of 14. During these vital early teenage years, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain - which is responsible for our problem-solving and decision-making - is going through lots of development; in fact, it is effectively being overhauled.

The pre-frontal cortex is driven by pleasure and reward systems and young people need to seek out risk - and therefore individualise - to be able to survive and thrive. However, due to young people being over-protected, they are being denied of this, leading to increased vulnerability to mental health issues later on.

Other pressures on young people

Modern society puts huge expectations on young people, who desperately seek markers of success, such as social media "likes" and numbers of so-called "friends", which have become the measures of the popularity stakes in schools.

Our results-focused school system also places excessive focus on IQ rather than EQ (Emotional Intelligence). And those subjects which build character and resilience - such as Sport, Art and Drama - are being squeezed or brushed aside in favour of others.

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Key Action Points

Professor Byron believes it's vital that we look at mental health from a "strengths" perspective and not just a "deficit" one.

Resilience and Emotional Regulation (the ability to understand oneself and external boundaries) are key contributors to a thriving life and we must look at all factors - Bio, Psycho & Social. In order words, we need to understand the "whole person".

The key way to survive and thrive is not striving to be happy all the time - which is unrealistic. It is about learning to cope with pain and misery, to bounce back from difficulties and to accept yourself for who you are.


Recommended Reading

  • Free Range Kids - book which challenges the notion of "helicopter parenting" (also referred to as "curling parenting").
  • The impact of the lack of time - mental health expert Natasha Devon gives her take on the youth mental health crisis

About the author

Jas Hothi is an ex-recruiter who has recently completed a Masters in Positive Psychology, and a long-standing supporter and volunteer with Action for Happiness.


Many thanks to Sam from Cartoon Communications for the wonderful doodles.


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