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Kids Are Getting the Wrong Message About Happiness. Here’s What You Need to Tell Them

7 minute read

Stixrud, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist and a faculty member at Children's National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School. He is on the board of the David Lynch Foundation. Johnson is the founder of PrepMatters and a sought-after speaker, writer, and teen coach on study skills, parent-teen dynamics, and anxiety management.

When we ask parents what they want for their kids’ futures, most answer: “I want them to be happy.” But if you ask most kids what they think their parents want for their future, the answer is usually something like “To get into a good college.” It seems like a disconnect, but it’s not. Many parents we meet in the course of our work with kids believe that acceptance to a good college will lead to a good job, financial security, and happiness ad infinitum. Their kids come to believe this, too. The problem is that we tend to be very poor predictors of what actually makes us happy.

Research tells us that we’re happier if we prioritize having time more than things, giving more than getting, and appreciating what we have more than trying to get what we don’t. So when we equate academic achievement and career success with happiness, we do so potentially at the cost of our kids’ well-being. Considering the marked increase over the last several years in substance use disorders and suicide among high-achieving kids and young adults, it appears that anxiety, depression and hopelessness have little respect for accomplishment.

While no one wishes mental health issues on their kids, some parents think that if their child is exhausted and miserable in high school in order to earn a coveted admission spot, well, that’s just the cost of being happy as an adult—and adolescence isn’t expected to be a happy time, anyway. Our response is threefold: First, we’ve lowered the bar too far when it comes to the adolescent and teen years, thinking of them as merely a time to endure and get through safely, rather than a time to enjoy. Even adolescents feel happiness when they act kindly, get enough sleep, are physically active, do things for others, focus on the positive things in their lives, and spend time in nature. Second, young brains that are stressed, tired, and unhappy all the time can get wired in a way that makes them more vulnerable to anxiety and depression and thus unable to appreciate the success they’ve worked so hard for. And finally, happiness begets success. So by focusing on happiness, you’re actually making it more likely that your kid achieves, well, whatever he or she wants.

A wealth of research offers insight about what does bring happiness. And there’s broad agreement that in any happiness equation, what happens to you—which includes a letter of admission to that coveted school—matters surprisingly little. Two of the things that do matter a lot: 1) strong relationships, and 2) a sense of meaning or purpose. And yet we so seldom talk with our kids about either.

On the relationships front, a recent study found that teens are experiencing a dramatic increase of loneliness around the world. Among millennials, one in five said they have no friends at all. And yet we meet parents all the time who say things like, “What’s hanging out with friends going to get her?” Or, “I know she has a great friends at her current school, but this other school will put her in a more competitive stance for college.” The importance of kids’ relationships continues to be downplayed throughout college. When a friend of ours spoke on a panel offering career advice to undergraduates, she was afraid to share her most important insight—that in her early twenties, she prioritized jobs where she could be near her boyfriend, who is now her husband of almost twenty years. It’s not a message she felt was safe to express, but she went for it. “I’d tell my younger self I was right to make career decisions based on my relationship. Because the truth is that nothing has mattered as much to my happiness as the person I chose to go through life with.” Something has gone awry in our world when a statement like this feels risky.

Our friend Kathleen O’Connor, a highly respected college admissions counselor, has said for decades that who you marry (if you decide to marry) is more important than where you go to college. And that applies for both good partnerships and bad. Imagine your level of happiness if you’re quarantined with a partner you can’t stand, versus someone whose company you continue to enjoy. Spouses provide secure bases, leading individuals to seek out more challenges and growth opportunities. Just think of how many successful people credit their spouse for their success. We’re not suggesting everyone needs to get married, or that all marriages will work out. But it is a problem if parents and other adults so prioritize career and the success trajectory for their kids that they leave the people part out of the conversation altogether, or when they prioritize learning advanced math but don’t teach how to resolve conflict in relationships.

The remedy is simple. Talk to your kids about the relationships in your life that have contributed to your happiness, and how you’ve made decisions around those relationships—even if it’s something as simple as when you called in sick one day to be with a friend in need. And talk to them about how they feel around others—how their relationships contribute to their happiness. Ask questions like, “Who do you feel most close to on this planet?” “Who do you feel like you can be yourself the most with?” “What would happen if you put more time and energy into these relationships that make you feel good?”

Alongside relationships, Martin Seligman, who founded the field of Positive Psychology in the late 1990s, frequently emphasizes the importance of purpose and meaning in a happy life. We need to tell kids the truth: that there are many ways to contribute in this world, and many ways to be happy that do not involve making a lot of money or achieving every brass ring. We can also help our children see that what they do doesn’t have to be meaningful to everyone. While many kids find tremendous meaning through involvement in bigger movements like environmental or social activism, many find meaning in smaller communities like their church or school clubs. Or to think even smaller, for most kids, meaning is tied to a few people—their friends, or in volunteering at an animal shelter or helping their elderly grandparents.

Again, our advice is simple. Talk to your kids about what gives you a sense of purpose, and how that contributes to your happiness. Ask your kids questions like, “If you’re here for a purpose, what do you think it might be?” “What gives you a sense of meaning?” “How would you like people to remember you?”

In the end, the most important rule of thumb for talking to kids about happiness is to talk about happiness. Pretty straightforward, right? But these conversations aren’t explicit nearly as often as you would think. It just doesn’t come up, and so kids form their impressions about happiness from listening to their parents emphasize the importance of grades and building a résumé for college. They supplement this with messages from their peers, teachers, or from the culture around them, which, by and large, increasingly promotes competition and materialism. So if you do nothing else, break these dangerous assumptions down, one conversation at a time. If we truly want our kids to grow into happy, fulfilled adults, we have to tell them the truth.

From WHAT DO YOU SAY? By William Stixrud, PhD and Ned Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson.

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