“It just doesn’t make me happy”, “He doesn’t make me happy anymore”, or, “You should quit, you deserve to be happy”, all common phrases that get tossed around these days. And while I’m not opposed to the fact that people deserve happiness, why are we constantly catering to happiness? Are we doing our children a disservice by encouraging their happiness above all else? If the goal is happiness all day every day, are we just learning to avoid the tough things in life? The following discusses a scenario that helps address these questions.
It was her summer between 5th and 6th grade when my daughter decided she wanted to play the flute. She wanted lessons and we agreed. She was so excited when she received the flute, met her instructor, and actually got a sound out of the instrument. But by week four the excitement and anticipation had worn off. All the other kids were outside playing and having the time of their lives during her ½ hour lesson. And then the comment came, “I quit, playing the flute just doesn’t make me happy anymore”. One month in and it got hard, challenging, it wasn’t fun, it didn’t make her happy. As parents we had a choice to make, she was obviously miserable and was no longer happy. Do we continue to make her do something that’s making her unhappy or allow her to quit and go play with friends outside, afterall she is only a child, shouldn’t she just enjoy her childhood and be happy?
Consequences of quitting…
If we decided on the latter and catered to her happiness factor and made happiness her goal we’d be teaching her that her distressing feelings are bad, something that shouldn’t be tolerated, something to be avoided at all costs rather than something she should manage. We’d also be teaching her that the minute she’s unhappy it’s entirely okay to break a commitment.
Consequences of not quitting…
We could allow her to sit with her hard emotions, express how she’s feeling, make her do the work of identifying the hard emotions, help her find a way to cope with those emotions, and remind her of her commitment, the fact that we don’t break commitments the minute something gets hard.
The Road to Authentic Happiness…
And here’s the real irony of the whole situation, by allowing her to work through her emotions, not avoid difficult things, and to meet a challenge, she learned how to cope through distress. Those uncomfortable feelings of unhappiness eventually didn’t take up as much head space and she persevered, practiced, and that huge grin on her face when she successfully mastered her first difficult piece was priceless. See, by not allowing her to quit on herself the minute she felt something uncomfortable allowed her to take control over her emotions, empowered her, and ultimately lead her to the natural emergence of authentic happiness.
As a Parent Watching Your Child Suffer is Hard
As a parent it is hard to watch your child be unhappy, so is it really that big of a deal if we just focus entirely on our children’s happiness all the time, won’t they like us more, and what does it really matter? As parents we can harbor them from distressing feelings and focus entirely on their happiness but once adulthood is reached I fear those “only if it makes me happy kids” should legit come with a warning for other adults.
As an adult, if you were raised by parents that only allowed you to do things that made you happy and whose parents did everything within their means to help you avoid any distress, to put it mildly, you’re screwed!
As an adult you cannot avoid distress. And what’s more your parents never made you do the hard work when you were a child. You’re unprepared for the challenges in a relationship. What’s really sad is the discomfort you feel as an adult is so much more intense because your parents taught you happiness all the time (and not even a real, authentic happiness, more of a fake fleeting happiness) and now as an adult you must be doing something wrong because you’re failing to find that happiness, you can’t get yourself to a better place. So what do you do? You blame other people. If it was your parents job to keep you happy all the time, thus, your natural inclination would be to assume that it’s now your partner or spouse’s job. And when they fail to always make you happy there is a misplaced blame on your spouse, so what do you do? Get a new spouse, maybe they’ll make you happy. And some people continue the cycle, just jumping from one relationship to another hoping they’ll find happiness, all because their parents never taught them the life skills of coping, working through the hard stuff, and the brutal truth that the only person responsible for their own happiness is themsleves.
Is teaching your child authentic happiness easy? NO! Any parent will tell you that not giving into a toddler or teenager temper tantrum is HARD! You know your child is suffering and as the parent your heart wants to make it better. But when we give in to all their tantrums as a toddler and during their adolescence that means that we aren’t helping them process and transform their emotions and suffering and in adulthood they will transmit it to others.