What are we teaching our kids about happiness?

by Kristin on August 7, 2009

in Love, family & community

Photo by lepiaf.geo

Is it safe to say we all want to be happy? Probably. After all, Aristotle came to that conclusion more than 2,000 years ago, and I’m not about to argue with him.

What we can’t assume, though, is that we all have the same definition of “happy” or can follow the same steps to get there.

For me, happiness is most intense when I’m sitting on my porch on a beautiful day, working on my writing or reading something amazing written by someone else. Or in those moments after a delicious meal, when everyone is too content to move so we all linger around the table, wandering from one topic of conversation to the next. Or when I’m watching my children enjoy life in some jubilant or focused way—whether they’re playing in the waves, or concentrating on a detailed drawing.

When are you most happy?

Getting just a tad academic about happiness

I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot lately—that’s right, thinking about it perhaps more than living it. First my husband left a comment on my last post (usually he shares his comments with me verbally, but every so often he types them in). The comment included this idea about happiness, from the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihály (in Jason’s words):

…his idea is that People are happiest, most satisfied when they are working hard toward a challenging but attainable goal. It is at this moments when consciousness about self and time fade to the background and you have boundless energy to keep working toward your goals.

Then, Up to Us, a parenting organization that’s on Twitter (@UpToUs), shared this link to a Stanford University article: We’re All Pursuing Happiness. But What Kind? The paper, written by Simon Firth about the research of Professor Jeanne Tsai, examines the issue of whether we all actually want to be happy (Tsai says yes), and if we want to be happy in the same way.

It’s important to consider, Tsai says, both what someone actually feels, as well as what they aspire to feel.

We tend to all experience the same sorts of emotions, regardless of the culture we grew up in, our socio-economic status, and even gender and temperament. But we vary greatly when it comes to what we want to feel, which gets more to the heart of how we each define happiness. And it all starts forming early in childhood.

Our Western ways: All excitement, all the time

In particular, Tsai looks at the differences between children from Eastern and Western cultures. Essentially, American and European cultures stress excitement over peacefulness, and activity over calm.  “The more [children] see happiness represented as either a low or high arousal emotion, the more they wish for that kind of happiness themselves,” Firth writes.

These are generalizations, of course, but they leave me wondering many things: How are we forming our children’s understanding of happiness? Are we presenting them with aspirations that are attainable and sustainable, or are we setting them up for lives of perceived unhappiness?

And what does all of this teach our kids about what’s commonly considered the opposite of happiness—depression?

Depression, [Tsai] pointed out, is often defined in terms of an absence of positive emotional states. But if you are defining positive emotional states only as excitement states, you’re potentially bringing a cultural bias to your clinical definitions of depression.

Embarking on a week of happiness

I don’t have the answers, but I know I’m going to be thinking about all of this next week, when we’re all together as a family at a cottage on Lake Michigan—the annual vacation that tends to define happiness for us, as a family. I’ll be asking myself what exactly it is about that time that makes us feel so happy: The peace and rest? Just being together? The change of scene? The many fun activities?

And when I’m not pondering, of course, I’ll thoroughly revel in living that happiness.

Photo by lilie-melo

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  • Trina

    In terms of happiness, I often think about how important it is to accept sadness too. As in it is ok to be sad, it can make the happiness that much sweeter. So interesting that so much emphasis in western culture is placed on the happiness surrounding things and experiences – generally speaking as outlined. For me so much more important to learn about the importance of peace and calm as it relates to happiness. I sprinkle that thought through out my childs lives, plus a smattering of how one can still be happy with out all the ‘stuff’.
    Enjoy your holiday and your happiness.

  • Annie

    Your comment rings so true and it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from steep magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Trina, I am SO glad you brought up sadness. I almost touched on it, when I mentioned depression, but sadness is different. In particular, sadness is very important to learn to accept and be comfortable with, as you pointed out, whereas depression is not something people should just “live with.” I’m with you, in my “peace and calm” approach to happiness. Laughter is a wonderful part of that, too, but it doesn’t have to be all excitement, all the time.

    Annie, I agree—laughter through tears is a wonderfully intense, satisfying, and far-too-rare emotion. There’s really no way to manufacture it, is there? We just have to do our best to be authentic and open to how we really feel.

  • http://sugarjones.tv Sugar Jones

    How funny… I’ve been on a happy kick lately. I have been doing some research regarding a program I’m pursuing as well as a book that jumped out at me recently, What Happy Women Know.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the All Happy All the Time issue. We can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not experiencing happiness if it’s not at a euphoric level. We undervalue simple joys and the feeling of contentment… and then we fall into depression because we’re not ecstatic. It’s an easy enough trap to fall into in our culture of do-more-have-more. It’s up to us to teach our children to appreciate simple pleasures. A lovely trip to Lake Michigan sounds like just the thing!

  • http://www.thehappiestmom.com Meagan Francis

    What a great post! As you know, I’ve asked the question on Twitter and on my blog: “how do you define happiness?” I’ve gotten hugely varying responses. There are people who see happiness as the pleasurable sensation they’re feeling in any given moment, and those who see it as more of an overall contentedness with life despite the ups and downs we all face every day (that’s me). But your post brings another dimension into the question, because if it’s an overall feeling of contentedness, what does “contentedness” look like? Or if you define happiness as the way you feel in any given moment, which sensations or feelings count as “happy”? I have been working hard to train myself and my kids away from the idea that there always has to be some huge, exciting event to make us really happy; that happiness comes from inside us and can be found in the small quiet moments just as readily as the big loud ones. I think kids understand that instinctively; it’s our culture that beats that appreciation of the small things out of them.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    What is the difference between happiness at Disney World and happiness at the beach?

    While trying to do some different things with money this summer, this question has popped into my mind over and over (also, “Do we need to pay to be entertained and/or happy? Shouldn’t we be able to figure out a way to do it on our own?”

    I think Jason’s quote is excellent – working toward a goal (say) in the yard is enjoyable. Whereas, being handed a goal (say) from a TV show – not so much.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Hi all of my lovely readers! I’m on vacation, so it’s more difficult to find the time and the wireless signal to respond to comments. Sorry for the delay—here I go!

    Sugar, it’s good to hear you’ve been on a happiness kick! I’d love to hear more about the book you mentioned. And I think you nailed this: “We can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not experiencing happiness if it’s not at a euphoric level. We undervalue simple joys and the feeling of contentment…”

    Meagan, you are the expert on this topic, in my mind, so I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. :) In some ways, I wonder if we aren’t protecting ourselves against disappointment when we train ourselves to find happiness in smaller things—not that that’s a bad thing to do…. I love your comment about happiness in small, quiet moments: “I think kids understand that instinctively; it’s our culture that beats that appreciation of the small things out of them.”

    Dave, money is a great issue to bring into this discussion, particularly during summer, when family vacation season is upon us, and also during a recession, when most people are being more careful with money. The well-known saying “you can’t buy happiness” is true, as we all know from watching the lives (and deaths) of celebrities like Michael Jackson. Perhaps we just need to remind ourselves of that a bit more often, in more concrete ways, taking joy in what’s right in front of us.