The Equipment for Happiness is Built In

by Rick on January 30, 2014

 Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise.

–Hans Selye

Each of us has a genius. I am not saying each of us IS a genius. In fact BEING a genius is a distraction from what is really important: getting to know our genius and building a relationship with it so that it can guide us into and through the challenges that comprise our lives.

When my flight from San Francisco arrived at O’Hare International Airport at 3:45 several Friday’s ago it was snowing. This fact should have alerted me to shift my inner anxiety regulator from DBL mode (Don’t Be Late) to WGF mode (Who Gives a Flurry). But, no. As worrying about missing my 5pm flight to LaGuardia faded, I began to squander my psychic energy a new way, namely worrying about the possibility that I would be keeping my sister up all hours of the night wondering when I would get in. As it was she greeted me at the apartment door in New York at 1 am with a smile, and all was good. Yes, my anxiety had been a classic waste of psychic energy.

From San Francisco to Houston to Detroit to Florida, everywhere I go these days, I am more and more impressed with parental anxiety about the success and happiness of their children. I hear it not just in the conversations I have with parents before, after or during the talks I give around the country, but sitting next to parents in planes and airports.

More and more is being written about happiness, and what we parents have to do to ensure that our children will be happy and successful. In fact, happiness is now a respected discipline of study. The King of Bhutan a few years ago focused his nation on GNH (Gross National Happiness.)

In “Happiness and Its Discontents” an excellent article in The Chronicle Review Mari Ruti says:

In this picture, anxiety is somewhat of an embarrassment: a sign of existential failure. Although the rushed pace of contemporary life makes tranquility more and more difficult to come by, we are repeatedly warned against the pitfalls of anxiety, including the psychosomatic symptoms it’s supposed to spawn. So-called wellness experts deem agitation to be bad for us. Magazine articles offer tips on how to overcome stress. And New Age gurus equate enlightenment with serenity.

We parents can’t help wanting our kids to be happy and successful, but if I hear the expression “stress free” one more time in reference to the good life, or “balanced” as a word that sums up a strategy for living your life, I may… I may… I may become unbalanced!

working hard - Google Search-1We are deliberately blind if we don’t know that our children are in for a lifetime of disappointment, failure, conflict, mistakes, loss and death. But it’s okay. Natural selection equipped us all to handle these very things. How else could our species have gotten this far?

No brain is wired perfectly. Certainly, children come into the world with a unique combination of assets and liabilities. Then their early environment crafts these abilities and disabilities into peculiar shapes—none of them perfect. But that is not the whole story. Each of us has what the ancient Greeks understood to be a kharacter—an imprint that the gods put on our souls at birth. This character has a life of its own and a voice of its own. The Greeks called it daemon; the Romans, genius.

My years of working with children, their parents and teachers, and my own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins has taught me that the ancients had it right. Each of us has an inner guide, an inner teacher, a genius.

In other words, children have the equipment for their success and happiness built in. Life is a lifelong process of creating our character in the world, and each of us has a genius whose sole mission and purpose is to make sure this happens well. A happy and successful life, therefore, is one challenge after another. Whether it is a good life or not has little to do with stress and balance, and everything to do with welcoming challenges, taking responsibility, making decisions, failing, conflicting, being wrong, and learning from mistakes. Anxiety and stress is an inevitable by-product of this activity.

The way to make it all good is to maintain a good relationship with our genius. This a lifelong challenge.

 

 

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Shirley January 31, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Interesting post, Rick. I think it even ties into your previous post about executive dysfunction…. While I agree that we’re all born with the capacity to be our best selves, and to be able to cope with the less easy parts of life, I think children today are exposed to too much too early. Success is lots of friends, lots of networking, lots of activity……..and each of those”goals” requires advanced executive skills. But they don’t have the capacity to cope
with social pressure, make choices about multiple options, and excel at soccer, violin…. and tap dancing.

Absolutely kids can deal with the challenges of disappointment, failure, conflict, mistakes, loss or death. But what if the adults around them are not able to, and provide really poor examples?

No, we don’t need to rescue kids from reality. But shielding them from situations that require a level of understanding and coping that is beyond their years, should be a parental role.

Rick February 1, 2014 at 4:07 am

Excellent thoughts, as always, Shirley. Your statement: “Absolutely kids can deal with the challenges of disappointment, failure, conflict, mistakes, loss or death. But what if the adults around them are not able to, and provide really poor examples?” is at the core of the matter.
We all know that the challenges our kids face are more challenging than (or at least different from) the challenges their parents faced when they were their age. Also, we know that adult behavior and adult ways of dealing with the world are not always the best models for the children.
These two givens lead me in a different direction, though. One of the ways adult behavior is not good guidance for children is their propensity to shield children from failure, conflict and mistakes.
Don’t underestimate children. If we want them to be better at handling difficult situations than adults, then we don’t want them to miss out on the full complexity of the world–especially in the first five years of life.
In the first five years the brain builds a causal map of the world by vigorous, persistent, inexorable, instinctive application of scientific method. Distortions of reality compromise the optimal development of this mental map.
It’s as if kids are saying to their teachers and parents:”Give me the truth as is; You can trust me with it.”
Acting as if kids can’t handle it, tends to make it so. Acting as if kids can handle it, and being there with them as their partner and coach (when called for), is the best strategy for ensuring that they will be able to rise to even greater and greater challenges as their lives progress.
How do we know what is beyond them? Not when it looks scary to us, not when we don’t know how to handle it, not when we think it’s too complex. These fears become self-fulfilling prophecies. Oversimplification and protection compromise the development of their prefrontal cortex. The human brain, especially in their first 15 years, is specially designed to handle more than it can handle. Acting as if this is true increases the likelihood that it will be so.
The only way they will learn to rise to social challenges is to take responsibility for social challenges. We don’t want them to “cope.” We want them to use a challenge to increase their advanced executive skills.
The test of whether or not all these activities is “too much” is the degree to which the child owns them. The problem with kids being “over-programmed” is not the quantity, but the programming.
–Okay, maybe we could drop the tap dancing–unless of course she is doing it on the living room floor when no one else is watching.

Shirley February 2, 2014 at 7:39 am

Having made several errors myself…..falling for the “please please please Mom I promise” and then faced with a child who did not own the incumbent responsibilities…I know clearly who made the mistake. But those are not the situations I worry about.

I worry about (and think about in relation to your post) the anxiety -ridden kids visiting therapist and taking medication or worse, taking their lives because there is no adult stepping up and making the adult decisions. Maybe it’s the case that the overprotection that can take place in the early childhood years results in teens and young adults who are ill prepared for bigger challenges, but then at this point the parent is no longer feeling they should be intervening. The kid should know better, they think. Are we hobbling our young children and then wondering what’s wrong with them when they’re 19? I think so.

Rick February 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm

me, too. But then we have to note that we are dealing in generalities. There is such variety in children, families and luck. Each heartbreak has its own unique set of causes.

Marty February 12, 2014 at 10:44 am

Great post, Rick, and nice discussion with Shirley. I think it is our inadvertent parental expectations and what not meeting them means to our children that cause an unnecessary but a strong relational kind of anxiety (parental anger, disapproval, regret, unhappiness, concern, punishment, etc.). Certainly shielding children from harm and destruction is essential, but I agree that shielding them from consequences that are part of healthy learning (choice-making and personal responsibility) inhibits that kind of learning. My question would be, what do I really need to shield my child from if it is not a matter of health or safety? Isn’t it from what my response means to my child?

Rick February 12, 2014 at 10:57 am

Interesting concept, Marty: Parents often feel the need to shield our kids from our response to their bad behavior. Hmmmm.

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