07/09/2015 11:36 BST | Updated 07/09/2016 06:12 BST

If You're Happy and You Know It - Clap Your Hands!

It seems like not enough children in England are clapping - according to the Children Society's Good Childhood Report. English school children are almost top of the league for unhappiness when compared to 15 countries around the world.

This study, carried out in collaboration with the University of York, is part of the larger Children's World Survey which was first undertaken in 2011. The project aims to explore children's perspectives on their lives and wellbeing and to understand how these compare against children in other countries.

The key message from this research seems at first glance to be that English school children are not doing well in the happiness stakes when compared with European counterparts or children from further afield (for example in Ethiopia and South Korea).

Unhappiness in this instance covers a range of measures from dissatisfaction with school life, experience of bullying and consequent lack of self-esteem and poor body image (the latter particularly in girls). The Children's Society report does make the case for action and others have already made the economic case for investing in the wellbeing of children.

It is important however not to over-egg the message - a large majority of children are doing well. For example, other international sources of data (such as the World Health Organisation's Social determinants of health and well-being among young people) make it clear that while there might be inter-country differences, most young people report their life satisfaction to be high. For example, in a 2012 survey - around 75% of Turkish 11 year olds reported high life satisfaction (the lowest percentage achieved in around 40 countries) rising to a high of 95% in Armenian adolescents.

Ensuring that children have the ability to be happy and maintain a sense of wellbeing even when things get tough should be an important concern for those interested in their welfare. There is also much existing research that demonstrates that promoting wellbeing at an early age can create the foundations for healthy behaviours, educational attainment and doing well in later life

So what can be done? Survey instruments like the one used by the Children's Society are useful to provide a snapshot of the current status of phenomenon such as wellbeing, and league tables can be beneficial if they spark an interest in policy makers to take action and improve things.

But what is it that we are trying to improve? The Children's Society use a variety of measures to tap into children's 'happiness'. They include such things as: whether they feel satisfied with their lives now; believing that they will have a bright future; a sense of safety where they live; and the quality of social relationships at home, school and in the neighbourhood. Effective actions can only stem from these ideas if we understand how they connect together to realise a vision that has been created with children to secure a positive and productive future.

A starting point for such a vision should be an agreement amongst adults that children should be 'seen and heard'- not just the former. Children's voices are important as well as the creation of an environment which allows them to grow up happy and with the skills and competence to do well in life, not only for themselves but also for others or the 'common good'. Taking a positive approach to child development can lead to a sense of wellbeing that is accompanied with good problem solving skills, social competence and sense of purpose.

We can't all be happy all of the time - but the more we provide children as they are growing up with opportunities to accumulate the skills and competences that help them deal with problems as they arise - the more likely they are to maintain a sense of wellbeing (or happiness) most of the time.

Increasingly, the notion of asset based work is deemed to be a successful way of helping children to do this. The World Health Organisation has documented the case for such an approach already (Social Cohesion for Wellbeing: an asset model) which involves listening to children; helping them develop a sense of belonging; improving their ability to make positive connections and to have a 'sense of coherence' that allows them to make sense of the world they live in and to have a sense of purpose. Put another way the more opportunities young people have in childhood and adolescence to experience and accumulate the positive effects of protective factors that outweigh risk factors, the more likely they are to achieve and sustain mental health and well-being across their life course.

If more emphasis is placed on this approach by policy makers, commissioners of services and all those with a responsibility for improving outcomes for children we would get more clapping. Parents don't need to worry - they won't be clapping all of the time. It's just that children will be better equipped to deal with challenges as they arise and more able to quickly regain an equilibrium of wellbeing once the challenges have been overcome.

Antony Morgan, Professor of Public Health at GCU London