“I just want them to be happy.” This is one of the most commonly stated goal for new parents, but what does it even mean? While happiness is a universal human experience, there is little agreement on how we achieve, much less keep, the emotional state. By all signs, nothing in the world will make a kid happier than an ice cream binge and too much bad TV. How is a parent supposed to work with that?
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An emerging understanding of happiness, lead by the new field of positive psychology, may offer a path lined with actionable insights. You might have to rethink material comforts, revisit character values, and really pay attention to a kid’s strengths. It’s not easy, but it’s the best way to avoid being the parent of a child who “has it all” and yet no happiness to show for it.
The First Step to Happiness: Wade Past the Short-Term Goals
A parent who thinks that happiness can be bought with stuff quickly loses control of the situation. This is because their parenting is influenced by economic realities. In order for their kids to acquire stuff, they’ll need to have an edge on peers to get the best education, the best jobs, and the best pay. This is a well-trod path of modern intensive parenting and it’s not only stressful, but it’s also incredibly expensive.
Anyone who has ever had the thrill of buying a new gaming system, or car, or cell phone, knows that material things do, in fact, bring acute and powerful happiness. But despite being reinforced by a constant barrage of media signals, happiness from the material fades. It’s why we upgrade. It’s why a new car doesn’t solve a mid-life crisis.
Positive psychologists find that happiness does not come from meeting a series of discreet pleasurable goals. “Happiness is a path that people are on, rather than a destination,” says Robert Zeitlin, a positive psychology practitioner and author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids. “Research points to ways people lead more gratifying lives rather than pleasurable lives. The differentiation is a short term boost in mood versus a long term character-based gain.”
Happiness based on goal attainment, whether it is achieving a new job title, buying a house, or losing a few pounds, comes from the brain releasing a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The body’s reaction to dopamine is a sense of pleasure. For instance, dopamine is released during sex, eating and even playing video games.
But the flood of dopamine is ultimately fleeting. You might feel happiness after beating a video game level, but the rush eventually fades. A framework of happiness based on short-term, material goals is about chasing the occasional and temporary dopamine rushes.
“This feeds into a fear-based life,” says Zeitlin. “So we look for those things that reassure us that we are safe and on the right path. They’re like a psychic hit of sugar or caffeine that satisfies a part of us that is less mature.”
As parents, we teach our kids this lesson without knowing we’re doing it. We have built children’s lives around achieving short-term goals. Our kids learn that happiness is contingent on the dopamine waypoints in the day to day existence like birthdays, Christmas, summer vacation, the new video game, the new toy, or the literal Happy Meal.
That’s not to say that parents should abandon these things. Pleasure and celebration are meaningful and important. But parents shouldn’t equate their kid’s birthday smile or Christmas joy with real lasting happiness. Because research in positive psychology shows that true happiness, as in a sense of long-term personal fulfillment, comes from building on character strengths.
The Second Step to Happiness: Embrace Character Strengths
Over the last two decades, the field of positive psychology has used observation and experimentation to identify and classify 24 unique character strengths. These strengths are valued and recognized in almost every culture and are independent of politics. They range from curiosity and creativity to bravery, kindness, humor, fairness, and forgiveness.
Character strengths are not linked to goals. They are part of the values that parents naturally try to build in their children by encouraging kids to be fair or practice self-control, kindness, and honesty. This is what we so often call, “family values,” a familiar part of elementary school sociological curriculum.
Research has found that while most people find value in all 24 character strengths, every individual builds a personal hierarchy of which strengths are most important to them. One person might prize love of learning more than any other strength. But, while they value bravery, perhaps it’s not the most important value to them. The path to long term personal fulfillment is engaging in pursuits and activities that build on the strength you most value.
“If I’m a curious person and I find a new section of the library, that’s not just satisfying and pleasurable, but it also helps grow that part of me that is curious,” Zetlin says. That growth is what creates and ultimately grows a lasting sense of fulfillment.
But for a parent to identify their kid’s character strength requires a lot more than just talking about it. It takes a bit of trial and error. The trick then is for parents to identify those strengths in their kid. Given that there are 24 of those strengths it might seem overly complicated to suss them out in a kid. But while there are diagnostic tools, it’s not necessary, or even practical, for parents to give their kids some kind of wide-ranging survey to figure out their character strength. Instead, parents can simply observe their kids doing what kids normally do.
The Third Step to Happiness: Encourage Discovery
Consider a kid who is into Minecraft, which is a part building and engineering game and part adventure game. Some parents might be inclined to focus on the product by giving the kid more Minecraft stuff. But viewing the interest through the lens of character strengths could reveal a kid who values creativity, or a love of learning. If they seem to focus on the social aspects of the game, it could be that they value teamwork or leadership.
The upshot is that instead of buying more superficial Minecraft stuff, a parent could encourage their child to engage in other creative endeavors, or find different ways to practice teamwork and leadership outside of the game. Practicing those strengths are what will lead to a lasting sense of wellbeing. But, importantly, that doesn’t mean pegging a kid to a career or a learning track, which is often where parents go when discovering a child’s strengths.
“That connects kids to an outdated set of curriculum categories,” Zeitlin explains. “Think about the subskills and strengths the kid is preferring to use. Ask a different question.”
But Zeitlin admits that asking the right questions is incredibly tough when they are anxious about their child’s success. So, that means that parents need to change their own mindset about what happiness is. It means finding their own character strengths and working on ways to make themselves feel less anxious and more fulfilled.
When parents model a character-based path to fulfillment, kids will follow. That’s because kids look to adults to learn how to live in the world. A child will get a better idea of long-lasting happiness if they see parents who are happy because they are indulging in curiosity or fairness rather than status and material goods.
“If you can get around to the mindset that you need to start with yourself, it changes everything,” Zeitlin says.
The profound change is that parents who just want their kids to be happy should also work to find their own true and lasting happiness. Because in the end, if happiness is a path, rather than a destination, parents and kids need to walk that path together.
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