Stop Wanting Your Kids To Be Happy

Focusing on our children's happiness may be a mistake

Yesterday, I was featured on KQED Public Radio (our local NPR affiliate) as part of their Perspectives program.  The topic was why we parents should stop wanting our kids to be happy.  If you missed the broadcast, you can listen to it here.  Or you can read the transcript below.

Finish this sentence: "I just want my kids to be ... " Like millions of other parents, you may well have said, "I just want my kids to be happy." I have said the same myself.

But while wanting happiness for our children makes sense, decades of research presents a paradox: Focusing on happiness is not a great way to actually be happy.

Happiness, it turns out, is not an end in itself. It's a consequence, not a goal. As Dr. Spock said: "The trouble with happiness is that it can't be sought directly. It is only a precious by-product of other worthwhile activities."

And too often, we parents equate happiness with pleasure and gratification. We try to pick summer camps our kids will "like", offer them meals they will "like," organize play-dates with kids they "like," and so on. Over time, these interactions send the message to kids that happiness is found in feeling good and getting what we want, and that organizing food, activities, relationships and even life itself around our preferences is the way to go.   

So what are the "worthwhile activities" Dr. Spock was referring to? Again, the research is clear. "Worthwhile activities" have two critical dimensions: engagement and meaning.  

Engagement is the creative application of our skills to meet challenges. These activities, like music and sports, often result in "flow," a state of total absorption in what we are doing. Meaning, also defined as service, is using our abilities to contribute to the greater good.

Although the pursuit of meaning is an essential part of a happy life, few parents say: "I just want my kids to do good," but engagement and meaning make us happier and more satisfied with life than pleasure does. And meaning contributes to the happiness of others, too.

I'm not arguing for ignoring our kids' preferences, only that the more they are balanced with what's important, good and meaningful, the happier our kids will actually be. There are many things in life -- from practicing an instrument to befriending an unpopular person - that we may not "like" doing, but these challenging and worthwhile activities sow seeds of true happiness.     

So let's wish for our children that they "do good." It's the best path to happiness.

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