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The Misguided Search for Happiness

Parents will often say they just want their children to be “happy.” If that is the goal, mental health statistics clearly indicate that as a nation we are failing miserably. Over the past fifty years, the mental health status of children in this country has gotten progressively worse. Consider the following:

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24.

  • Clinical depression is now epidemic among teens, especially girls.

  • Approximately 15 million American children ages 3 to 17 (about 1 in 5) have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder.

In previous generations, child-rearing emphasized character development. Parents were intent upon instilling proper moral values, respect for others, a strong work ethic, and an appreciation of the relationship between personal liberty and personal responsibility. Today’s parents may say that these character-based objectives are still a focus, but the rise in child and teen mental health issues certainly makes such a claim suspect. One only need look at the nightly news to see that as a nation we have lost a collective sense of priorities when it comes to preparing children for adulthood.


Parenting priorities have clearly shifted. Where once the emphasis was on the character of the child, the focus today is much more on how the child conceives him/herself - an ineffable psychological distinction called self-esteem. Over the past half-century, preoccupation with self has been elevated to an art form. It appears that self-improvement has less to do with a person’s character or values than individual betterment – a better body, a better complexion, better hair, better this, better that; a type of self-improvement that many of today’s self-improvement gurus tell us is the key to – yep, you guessed it – happiness.


It is natural to want to experience feelings of happiness, feelings essential to a healthy existence. However, viewing a state of happiness as the ultimate goal in life itself leads to the quest becoming almost entirely self-serving, with effectually no benefit to others. The fact is that as the search for perpetual happiness has become the elusive (albeit illusive) brass ring, increasing numbers of children and adults are more depressed and anxious than ever before.


A 34-year career educator I witnessed firsthand the focus some parents place on ensuring their children’s happiness – and not just at home. When it comes to "safeguarding" school success, foremost concerns about their children’s happiness assume a similar desperateness, with the parents failing to fully understand that learning takes place by trial and error. These are the parents who complain when their children get bad grades, gripe about teachers who aren’t appropriately “sensitive” and demand that report card grades be changed lest their children suffer blows to their “self-esteem.” Unfortunately, such misguided attempts to ensure the happiness of children through at times preposterous, potentially unsustainable and even dishonest means have taken on the guise of good parenting.


The fact of the matter is when one person (in this case, the parent) attempts to guarantee another’s happiness and success (child), that person becomes, by definition, an enabler. The more one enables, the more he must enable. Regardless of how subtle, it becomes mutually destructive. Shocked when they discover that happiness is in fact fragile and fleeting, children throughout this country are paying the price. It’s past time to put 'happiness' in its rightful place.


© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, July 2022