One of the most frequent comments I get from parents is “I just want my kid to be happy.” Though an admirable and common objective, happiness is one of the most neglected family values in twenty-first-century America. Few parents grasp the essential meaning of happiness for their children and fewer still understand how they can help their children to find it.
Parents’ efforts at helping their children gain happiness are undermined by the distorted messages that popular culture communicates to parents about happiness; that happiness can be found in wealth, celebrity, power, and physical attractiveness. Yet research and anecdotal accounts of people who have these attributes show that pursuit of these “false idols” can actually cause unhappiness.
By understanding how happiness develops, you can help your children find true happiness. The real causes of happiness are all within your children’s control so they can actively do things that foster their own happiness.
Self-esteem is a powerful contributor to happiness. Self-esteem gives children a sense of security from which they can engage the world, which enables them to approach life with confidence. Self-esteem also offers children a strong sense of competence, in which they view themselves as able people who can master important aspects of their lives. This faith in their abilities facilitates success, which can cultivate happiness. It also reduces worry and anxiety, which can cause unhappiness.
We’ve all seen children who just have a great attitude about things. They’re positive, optimistic, and hopeful. They see a world filled with sunlight and warmth rather than clouds and cold. These children tend to be happy because they see the “glass half-full,” meaning they expect good things to happen to them. Children with positive attitudes are also more likely to express gratitude. Children who appreciate the opportunities they’re given and convey genuine gratitude to those who help them have been found to be happy people.
Another essential contributor to your children’s happiness is a passion for something in their lives, be it writing, soccer, the piano, or another avenue. Passionate children are happy children because there is something in their lives that they absolutely love to do. Children’s passions engage, absorb, and thrill them. For example, the reader who savors every word of the books she reads or the cellist who listens to Yo Yo Ma for hours on end. Just being involved in any way in the activities for which they have a passion makes them happy.
Popular culture doesn’t want your children to be passionate about meaningful activities in their lives. It wants your children to connect to things that will never bring your children happiness, but will make it more money, for example, video games and shopping. Parents exacerbate this dependence by choosing the expedient route for entertaining their children—handing them over to popular culture—rather than finding activities that engage their children, from which they might find a passion.
The unhappiest children I work with are those who lead unbalanced lives. They spend most of their time in one activity and their self-esteem is based largely on how they do in that activity. The problem with devotion to one activity is that things will not always go well, there will be times when children have setbacks and failures, and they will experience boredom, disenchantment, and frustration. If the one activity is all that your children have to feel good about themselves, you are at risk for unhappiness.
Popular culture wants your children to be imbalanced. Children see young stars, like the soccer player, Freddie Abdu, or the actress, Hilary Duff, and are told by popular culture that they must sacrifice balance and, for example, join “all-star” traveling sports teams or take piano or dance classes five days a week to become superstars. Children who are out of balance are at risk of falling over—metaphorically—and being very unhappy.
Balanced children derive happiness from many outlets, for example, sports, involvement in spiritual or cultural activities, or reading. Children who have balance in their lives will still have experiences where things don’t go well, but, because their self-esteem is not based solely on one activity and other parts of their lives bring them happiness, they’re still able to maintain their happiness.
Be a Human Being
Popular culture doesn’t want your children to be human beings. Instead, it wants to create “human consumings” whose primary purpose in life is to spend and acquire. Human consumings buy, buy, and buy in the mistaken belief that it will bring them happiness. You can observe ravenous young human consumings every day in the malls, buying clothes and shoes “they absolutely must have!”
Happy children are human beings, not human consumings. Being involves children finding happiness not in things, but in experiences, relationships, and activities that offer meaning, satisfaction, and joy. The ability to just be grounds happy children in who they are rather than what they own, and gives them control over what brings them happiness.
One of the most robust findings in the research on happiness is that people who have strong relationships tend to be the happiest people. The opportunity to give and receive love, friendship, and support from family, friends, schoolmates, and others is essential to happiness. Positive feedback from others—love, respect, encouragement—is the most readily available source of happiness. Social relationships may also reduce stress, increase feelings of security, and generate other positive emotions, all of which are conducive to happiness.
Popular culture doesn’t want your children to have healthy relationships. It preys on isolated and lonely children who are desperate for any kind of connection with others. Children who have good relationships have less of a need for attention, stimulation, and acceptance. They’re less vulnerable to appeals from popular culture that may make them feel important or popular.
Giving to Others
We often look for happiness in the wrong places. We’re preoccupied with looking inside ourselves to find happiness with psychotherapy, meditation, and self-help books to uncover our internal obstacles to happiness. Or people look for happiness outside of themselves in the form of consumerism, drug and alcohol use, and other forms of gratification. But happiness can’t be found down either of those roads.
Your children will ultimately find happiness outside of themselves, by giving of themselves to others. There is something profoundly nourishing about putting others’ needs ahead of our own and helping others find happiness. Giving to others somehow touches us in a very deep way and provides a feeling of meaning, satisfaction, and joy that can’t be found elsewhere. In putting their own needs aside to help others, children’s own deepest needs are met.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, has work with young people, parents, and educators for more than 27 years. Jim is the author of 14 books, four of which are parenting books. Jim has appeared on NBC’s Today show, Fox News Channel, ABC’s World News This Weekend, and the major television network affiliates around the country. He has participated in many radio shows. Dr. Taylor has been an expert source for articles that have appeared in The London Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, outside, Men’s health, and many other newspapers and magazines. Jim lives north of San Francisco with his wife, Sarah, and his daughters, Catie and Gracie. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.