“I just want my child to be happy.” We hear this often from the families that we work with. It is a wish that on the surface, seems heartfelt and harmless. What parent doesn’t want their child to be happy? This is especially true for parents who have children struggling with anxiety, depression, or other personal challenges. For many parents who have been living with the pain of watching their child struggle to regulate their emotions and make healthy choices, the happiness of their child can be a deep and longstanding dream. While it is healthy and normal to want our children to be happy, it can be counterproductive to position “happiness” as the end goal for treatment. Searching for a path to contentment and success is the beginning of a deeper conversation. There are many meta-messages wrapped up in this idea of finding happiness and it can be a rich and valuable process to understand how we are defining happiness. Do we quantify happiness as successful independent living? Career satisfaction? Healthy relationships? Access to meaningful pursuits? What is the emotional foundation that builds a happy life? Joy? Contentment? Connection? Peace? How do we know that a child is truly and authentically happy? When they experience happy emotions? When they possess the skills to be successful? When they achieve life milestones?
Happiness is not a universal hard-wired emotional experience, and we all conceptualize it differently (Barrett, 2017). It is important, therefore, that parents fully unpack the concept of happiness when they enter into a dialogue about a happy life with their child. It may be that by engaging in this exploration we will come to find that our understanding of happiness is fundamentally different from our child’s. For example, parents may believe that happiness requires financial stability and meaningful work, which, in turn, requires academic success. Their child, on the other hand, may believe that happiness is derived from social interaction with their peer group and leisure pursuits, such as video games. The child will likely prioritize these activities, while their parent will argue that school and homework need to come first. This dynamic often leads to misunderstandings, power-struggles and family tension. The ensuing conflict will likely involve an argument over who is right and who is wrong, while, in truth, both parent and child are correct and incorrect at the same time because each is working off of a different definition of happiness. Parents are more likely to achieve success in supporting their child towards achieving a “happy life” when they work from a point of mutual understanding. Their children are more likely to achieve success in pursuing genuine and lasting happiness when they are able to articulate their needs and goals effectively.
Humans learn relationally, meaning we come to know what happiness is in relation to sadness, pain, and other less desirable emotions (Harris, 2009). In other words, we only know what it feels like to be happy because we know what discomfort, heartache, grief, etc. feel like. While it’s often uncomfortable, children need to experience negative emotions in order to recognize the experience of positive emotions. If all experiences of distress, hurt, and failure, are averted or mended for them, they won’t have a reference point for the comparative joy of life’s best moments nor the tools to effectively regulate their distress in service of moving forward and establishing momentum towards key goals. Happiness is a state of being, not a lifestyle. Too much happiness can lead to habituation, entitlement and apathy. It may feel counterintuitive for parents to wish both happiness and struggle upon their children, yet it is from moments of challenge that happiness is born. We cannot have one without the other. Learning to trust ourselves to be able to get through the difficulties life presents and find our way back to the things that we appreciate most and derive joy and satisfaction from, is a true key to establishing sustainable happiness.
Painful moments are impossible to avoid, life is full of them. People we love will disagree with us, hurt our feelings, or even pass away. We will get sick, rejected, and make mistakes. When parents bestow the wish of happiness on their children, they run the risk of unintentionally communicating the message that Happiness = Success, and Negative Emotions = Failure. This becomes a no-win scenario for the child. If I’m not happy, I must be a failure, and yet, unhappiness is inevitable…therefore failure is inevitable. When parents express a desire for their children to experience challenges and difficult emotions as well as happiness, they also guide them towards the development of a more mature and realistic worldview – one that anticipates both triumphs and disappointments. This type of worldview has been researched extensively and has been shown to help children be more resilient in the face of failure (Dweck, 2006). They are better able to get up after a fall when the fall was expected, then when they expect only soaring success. Perhaps it’s time for a new equation, Happiness = Resilience.
When we as parents are in the trenches of a day-to-day struggle with our children, sometimes we don’t have the time or energy to dive into the kinds of questions posed above, and we can easily fall back on, “I just want my child to be happy.” At True North we can support a deeper family process by creating space for a more expansive conversation about what this sentiment truly means. Our parents can expect to explore their own ideas around the concept of happiness, and also to learn more about what their child’s personal goals are for a happy life. They can also expect to shift from the role of direct facilitator of their child’s happiness, to providing support from the sidelines while their child builds resilience by working experientially through challenging moments. In doing so, they will help guide their child towards a more resilient worldview and increase the likelihood that their child will achieve success in the highly coveted “pursuit of happiness.”
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.