Struggling With Happiness

So how’s the summer going?  Everyone happy? Are your kids basking in happy family vacations, happy camp experiences, happy meals, and of course, enjoying every minute of their visit to “The Happiest Place on Earth?

We parents sure go to great lengths to keep our kids happy, don’t we?  A web search I did the other day on “raising happy children” came up with 39,300,000 results, so it must be important to us.  In fact, a favorite exercise in my classes is to have parents visualize their children at age 18 and list the top adjectives they hope will describe them as adults.  In the 12 years I’ve been doing this, I think “happy” has always been one of the top words on the list.   And why not?  I think most of us want our children to be happy, both now and in the future.  But does striving to keep our children happy truly translate into creating happy adults?

Maybe not.   I recently read a very thought provoking article entitled, How to Land your Kid in Therapy.  Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/).  The article explores the possible consequences of protecting our children from unhappiness, and how it may affect and diminish their happiness as adults.  It’s written by Lori Gottlieb, a pychotherapist and mother, who reports that she and her colleagues are seeing more and more patients in their 20‘s and 30‘s who seem to come from loving and stable families, yet suffer from depression, anxiety, and a general sense of emptiness.

“Many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment…with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong,” explains Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA.  The article discusses how these protections are preventing our children from developing, what Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, calls “psychological immunity.”  Just like our body’s immune system needs to be exposed to pathogens to know how to respond to an attack…”kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle….and yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.”

I can definitely recount many of my “fix-it” moments as a parent, yet one stands out for the lesson it taught me.  When Conor was about 8 years-old, we were driving to his soccer game and he began complaining that he didn’t get as much playing time as other boys on the team.  Just as I was about to respond in my most empathetic way (and was strategizing on the conversation I was going to have with the coach to “fix” the situation) I heard my husband tell him, “You don’t play that much because you’re not as good as they are.” The silence from the back seat was almost as intense as the sinking feeling in my stomach.  “Poor Conor,” I thought.  “How is that hurtful comment going to make him feel?  Angry? Hurt?  Or maybe even (gulp)…UNHAPPY?”  But I held my tongue, because I knew deep down that my husband was right.  It may have been upsetting, but it was a fact.  And yes, that was a tough season for him and me, as I watched him struggle through not playing much, getting frustrated, and and often wanting to quit.  But he also survived.  In fact, I think he more than survived.  That season gave him a little perspective, a little humillity, and definitely helped us both develop more confidence in his ability to face a struggle and come out standing (not to mention motivating him to practice his soccer skills before the next season)!  As Wendy Mogel, psychotherapist and author, implored in the article, “Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college…let them be devastated many times on the soccer field!”

Yet I think about the countless ways we parents and the institutions we’re associated with, strive to “fix” things for our children in order to keep them happy.  These include the infant and toddler contraptions with non-stop stimulation, the contrived and controlled playdates that have replaced spontaneous neighborhood play, the over the top birthday parties starting in preschool, the loss of school P.E. games that seem too violent, and the trophies and awards given to everyone, so no one ever feels hurt or left out.  “Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier,” Gottlieb notes as she observes this phenomenon as being truly unique to our generation. “The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.”

I recently asked my dad, a very positive and happy person who has definitely seen his share of struggles, how he viewed happiness in terms of raising my brother, sister and I.   He and my mom’s goals as parents, he said simply, were to raise responsible and successful individuals.  He talked about the importance they placed on programmed deprivation, basically not giving us everything we wanted all the time, and making sure we never had the feeling of being entitled .  Happiness was never the goal he said, but hopefully a nice outcome from building up our own inner satisfaction and self-esteem.  He actually likened it to sleep.  If we set the foundations to get rest, internally and externally, than sleep will hopefully be the outcome.  The same could be said for happiness.    His viewpoint was reinforced in the article. “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”

So as the dog days of August settle upon us, let’s take some of this to heart, when hearing some of the less than “happy” feelings coming from our dear offsprings– be it their struggle with boredom from ALL that free time on their hands, disappointment at the summer camp they hate to attend, or losing out to their siblings for prime car seat territory during the long family road trip. Maybe by allowing them to experience these small struggles now, we are building up their psychological immunity to face and conquer the bigger and inevitable challenges that lay down the road. And feel the happier for it!

Mindful Parenting Playlist Song#8 “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M.

 

 

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  • Janet

    I really appreciated reading this blog, Shaila.  I strive to help my children become self-sufficient beings.  I hope I am with my kids for a really long time, yet I know nothing is guaranteed in life.  I myself am a very resilient individual, very persistent,and surely this modeling is having an effect on my sons.  I am trying to raise them to recognize the difference between wants & needs.  I have even overheard Jonas (3 yrs) explaining this to Jakobi (1 year). 😉  I believe we Americans aim to shield our children from struggle, but I personally believe that it is struggle that develops our character. 

    There is no progress without struggle.  (Frederick Douglass)

  • Liana Williams

    Shaila!  GREAT article! And SOOOO true!  Thank you for your insight. One of the things I LOVE about my kids’ karate dojo is that not every kid gets to test for a new belt every time…..you have to EARN it!  What a concept!  Sometimes one sibling gets to test and the other doesn’t….this comes with some disappointment and sadness at times, but leads to more discipline, pratice, focus, dedication and HARD WORK to earn the right to test for the next belt.  A great lesson in perseverance, satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment when they step up a color…….which ultimately spreads a HUGE smile across their faces!!!