Happiness has become a scientific pursuit in our generation. In the past few months alone I have been plastered with advertisements to attend a course on happiness (I must admit that I finally gave in), received a book on happiness written by an academic scholar as a gift, and had dinner with friends where most of their conversation revolved around “happiness projects” that were being taken up as a result of Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling novel about her own said project. While all this seems great, I think that the “happiness craze” has passed over the most important cross-section of the population if we are ever going to get at the root of undoing our modern day unhappiness. We are focused on enlightening ourselves but still stuck in the mentality that our children will somehow come upon happiness naturally. Chalk it up to idealism, over-reliance on the innocence of youth, or even just the desperate hope that we are giving our children the most privileged childhoods of any generation so hey- what do they have to complain about? But the reality is that children in our society are missing the boat on the right mental attitudes as well. As a fellow parent recently told me, “My child has everything he needs, but all he can focus on is how he doesn’t have the Pokemon cards he wants.”
According to the American Psychological Organization in their report “Consumerism and its Discontents” by Tori DeAngelis the average American has twice as many cars per person, eats at restaurants twice as much, and of course enjoys endless devices to simplify their lives and provide entertainment compared to Americans in 1957. Israelis and other nations around the world are enjoying similar statistics. And yet, according to Hope College Professor David G. Myers, today’s young adults are growing up with less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology in tandem. Why?
I believe that the answer is that there are unique challenges that come with abundance, just like there are unique challenges that come with deprivation. But what are we doing about this? Are we educating our youth and equipping them with life skills to address and combat these challenges, or are we still sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that happiness is something that “should just come naturally”?
David Brooks, in a June 2009 New York Times column directed at high school graduates, points out that at least formally, we are definitely employing the ostrich approach. “It (Society) is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on the decisions that have marginal impact on happiness.” He cites the abundance of courses and guidance that are offered to young adults on the decision of where to go to college, while there is no formal training in how to select a spouse, no curriculum to teach the talent of making and keeping friends, and no classes on how to control one’s impulses, all life skills that have been shown to be inextricably tied to one’s happiness.
Positive psychology has emerged as a powerhouse of the 21st century: researching the topic, providing empirical proofs for its methods and disseminating its knowledge on college campuses to the masses. But what of our younger children? Why wait until they reach college and realize they are unhappy and need to undo their unhappiness? Tal Ben Shahar’s Harvard positive psychology class exploded from 20 students to 850 students within a few years, as some of the most brilliant, well equipment and privileged students from around the world clamored to find skills to combat their unhappiness.
The bottom line is that we need to start cultivating more positivity, gratitude and optimism in our children and teach them tools to glean real happiness from the world around them at a young age. Happiness training should be on the short list of life skill training essentials, right up there with riding a bike, swimming, and self defense. After all, why should the aforementioned be more of a milestone than learning inner peace?
Our children are ready for it. Go out and see what fascinates these young minds and you will notice that they are already looking past the mundane side of life: Mystery, magic and miracles capture their imaginations (and ours too for that matter). They are searching for something deeper, waiting for us to explain the world to them and make sense of it all, and therefore it is up to us to shape their reality and provide them the life skills for happiness even at a young age. It has to actively be taught-As an example, Dr. Ben Shahar instituted a program focusing on happiness, morality and success within certain schools in Israel upon his return home from Harvard where the language of Positive Psychology became an integral part of school culture. The results were higher GPAs and diminished rates of anxiety, depression and violence within these schools, to name just a few key results.
We create our children’s realities. The question becomes how can we actively work to select and form those realities rather than letting them happen on their own? I believe the answer can be uncovered through understanding Judaism’s secrets to happiness which believe it or not overlap considerably with positive psychology. These are the insights that we must literally plant in our children from a young age. We must teach them to resist the natural urge to look at what others have and compare our own lots to theirs, we much teach them tools for resiliency, mindfulness, deep-seated gratitude, the power of perspective, purpose, positivity and self acceptance. Being ‘Dan L’kaf zechut’ (judging individuals favorably) isn’t only about our personal perspective on others- it needs to be about our perspective on ourselves as well. Self-esteem and self-acceptance seem to be at an all-time low in our society and it’s time to raise the bar right along with our children.
*Originally published in Times of Israel
Beth Perkel is a freelance writer that has been published in a whole host of publications ranging from Newsweek magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul to The Jewish Press and Aish.com. She is a mother, speaker, mediator, teacher, rebbetzin and writer in Chicago, IL.