“I just want him to be happy,” I’ve said to myself, alone in my thoughts, watching my tiny human grow into himself.
I bet you have, too.
It might be the most universal of all parenting wishes: comfort, contentment, and joy for our children. We want our kids to live passion-filled, easy-going lives, with healthy, soul-filling love. We want our kids to travel the world, experiencing everything we never experienced. We want them to be happy with a capital H.
But is that a goal that we, as parents, can reasonably tackle? Is that a reasonable expectation to put onto our kids’ shoulders? Is there anything that we can possibly do to teach our kids how to attain happiness?
Parents have tried, for sure. They’ve tried to soften the inevitable blows from life, hovering like helicopters to thwart any major obstacles or setbacks. (Trophies for all!) We all know how that story ends. Society has given it a shot, as well. Besides the fact that “the pursuit of happiness” is an unalienable right — along with life and liberty — we’ve developed a road map for kids to follow: Get good grades, go to college, get a professional job, meet The One, and live happily ever after.
Happily ever after. (womp, womp.)
Yet despite all of this, parents are still searching for ways to teach kids the art of pursuing happiness. I know this because the bookstores are clogged with self-help books on the subject, as is the Internet with articles and studies and experts explaining how to live a happy life with a capital H.
Except if “happily ever after” is the end goal, maybe we don’t understand how happiness works.
No but seriously — do you understand happiness? Do you know how to define it? Go on and look it up in the dictionary; you’ll find a vague list of synonyms. Consult the experts, and you’ll get a wide variety of interpretations.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” To the Dalai Lama, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” Abraham Lincoln concluded, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Even Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (which sparked a global happiness movement), acknowledges the loose definition of happiness.
“Happiness isn’t a passive state that descends on you like a golden cloud when everything goes right. It’s an unceasing effort,” Rubin wrote on her popular blog. She goes on to explain how everyone’s idea of happiness is individual and nuanced, and her idea of a “Happiness Project” might not look the same as yours.
So how do we teach such an elusive, subjective idea in concrete terms? Why are our arms outstretched, fingers reaching toward an end result that largely lives inside of our heads?
Or maybe we shouldn’t be stressing happiness at all. That’s what The Atlantic argues in their recent article, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” It makes a compelling argument against pursuing happiness — citing studies and experts that claim the pursuit of happiness is exactly what makes people unhappy. Instead, we should be seeking meaning and purpose in our lives. That’s the key! That’s it!
But again, here we are debating semantics.
Maybe — just maybe — we all need to take a deep breath and take these heavy goals off of our shoulders. We need to take the pressure off of ourselves (and our kids) and recognize that happiness is a by-product, not an end result. Happiness is a state of mind, not a pillowy landing place. It’s not tangible or achievable. You can’t win happiness, or purchase it, or contain it. It’s fleeting and temperamental. It’s controllable. It can mean whatever we want it to mean.
I, for one, am done trying to teach my kid how to be happy. While I certainly hope that he has a happy life, it’s not something I feel responsible for anymore.
Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, would agree with me.
“It strikes me as a better goal — and, dare I say, a more virtuous one — to focus on making productive kids, and moral kids. And to simply hope that happiness will come to them by virtue of the good that they do, and their accomplishments, and the love that they feel from us,” Senior said in her TED Talk, “For Parents, Happiness is a Very High Bar.”
Maybe the only way to instill happiness is to embody happiness in front of our kids. Maybe it’s better to teach positivity, resourcefulness, resilience, and a list of coping tools. To teach them that life doesn’t have a Happily Ever After — and we wouldn’t want it to. It’s in our moments of sadness and struggle that we grow and mature and gain clarity. A constant stream of happiness would be boring and unrealistic.
Maybe the only thing our kids need to know is that it feels good to do good. To be good.
Maybe the happiness will take care of itself.