According to a large-scale study from the medical school of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, almost one-quarter of 6- to 17-year-olds show symptoms of mental illnesses. The problem, according to my own findings, is especially acute with teenage schoolchildren. China Daily recently reported that “In 2020, nearly 25 percent of adolescents in China were reported mildly or severely depressed.” (Committee Calls for Action on Adolescents’ Mental Health, Nov 28, 2023, China Daily.)
The late American philanthropist and investment guru Charlie Munger had advice about how to live a happy life. His close associate, multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, said: “Charlie gave me the ultimate gift that a person can give to somebody else. He made me a better person than I would have otherwise been. … I’ve lived a better life because of Charlie.” In an interview with US business-news TV channel CNBC, Munger revealed that the secret to a long and happy life is simple: “You don’t have a lot of envy, you don’t have a lot of resentment, you don’t overspend your income, you stay cheerful in spite of your troubles. You deal with reliable people and you do what you are supposed to do. And all these simple rules work so well to make your life better. And they are so trite.” He pointed out, though, that it may not be easy for some people: “Can you be cheerful when you’re absolutely mired in deep hatred and resentment? Of course you can’t.”
Munger was right. Those “absolutely mired in deep hatred and resentment” cannot be cheerful; they are conditioned by their unhealthy mindset. A healthy mindset has to be built up over time and, in the best case, from an early age. For those already mired in an unhealthy mindset, change is still possible; but this requires a strong will, guidance and perseverance. It is far better to immunize young children against sick minds through a good dose of life education, and with their teachers and parents becoming reliable role models.
Hong Kong’s children are unhappy because many parents and teachers fail to set good examples. If parents and teachers cannot manage their lives well, their influence on their children and their students may be perverse. It is of little use asking people to look at things positively because hope and optimism have to be grounded on a capacity to manage one’s life well, and that capacity needs to be nurtured.
Because pressure causes unhappiness in people, reducing pressure would certainly help. But it is far more important to nurture in children the skills and the mindset to handle pressure.
One way to reduce pressure is to ensure that the challenges that people face are manageable. If a task is well beyond one’s ability, or if the expectations are set too high, the pressure would be too much. Anxiety becomes inevitable. If genuine effort is appreciated and academic results are downplayed, students would not worry that they might get poor results. Helping students to learn what they are capable of learning, and letting them see their progress and appreciating their efforts to self-reflect and make improvements will gradually help boost their confidence. They will also appreciate the love and care from their parents and teachers and will naturally become optimistic.
For those already mired in an unhealthy mindset, change is still possible; but this requires a strong will, guidance and perseverance. It is far better to immunize young children against sick minds through a good dose of life education, and with their teachers and parents becoming reliable role models
Parents and teachers need to realize that losing their temper and using abusive language are harmful to mental health. Parents and teachers need to know that disappointments are unavoidable in life, and they must give their children and students support when they face disappointments. Coming to terms with the disappointment by acknowledging the fact and learning from the experience will build resilience. Paradoxically, if one has rarely been disappointed, it is unlikely that one can handle disappointments very well. The wise ones will gain strength from disappointments and move forward. The foolish ones will be mired in their unhappiness and disappointments for a long time, effectively wasting valuable time to build up mental capital.
Parents and teachers need to learn and to educate their children and students that many goals are merely of instrumental value. Not achieving an instrumental goal is never the end of the world. Sometimes, giving up an instrumental goal is necessary for one to move on. “Never give up” must not be misunderstood as “never give up an instrumental goal”. Life has much more to offer than achieving an instrumental goal.
Humans are social animals, and pressure often arises from peers. It is notable that increasing the number of university places so that the probability of getting admitted in a university goes up may even increase the pressure that students face. This is because in the old days, when more than 90 percent of the student cohort could not get a university place, not being given a university place was considered normal. When the majority of students get a university place, the pressures on those who fail to get into a university become unbearable. To make this “failure” bearable, students need to develop the mindset that having a clear conscience is enough and stop comparing themselves with their peers. If “you do what you are supposed to do”, you will have a clear conscience. That is enough. After all, getting admitted to a university is just an instrumental goal. Life has so much to offer. Looking further afield, beyond the disappointment, may bring nice surprises.
The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS