Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness

So late May/early June is when I hear a lot of graduation speeches.

This can be fairly mind numbing, as clichés seem to have their origins in the Graduation Speech genre. One group of inventive Bowdoin College profs I know (names withheld to protect the guilty) have come up with a sort of “bingo” they play during the graduation ceremony, checking off boxes whenever a speaker utters a particular cliché (references to the ivory tower, going forth into the world, etc.), and jumping out of their seats and shouting the name of the current governor when they have checked off all the boxes on their cards.

It’s disruptive, highly amusing to those in the know, and puzzling to the other graduation attendees.

So I was amazed and delighted to hear a speech, written by a young man who graduated from Middlebury College this past February, which not only made me laugh out loud, but made me think. Rethink, actually. And question my assumptions about a few things I had previously held dear.

Here's the excerpt that grabbed me:

The problem with the American dream, the dream so often spouted on days like today, is not simply that it leaves us chasing material success, thinking that if we just get a bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger TV, then we will be happy. It’s the very idea of the pursuit of happiness. Because happiness is not something you pursue. It’s something you create.

I loved that. The idea that happiness isn't a goal or a pursuit, but a creation. And not necessarily for ourselves.

Then, this week, an article in The Atlantic came to my attention. It was titled "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," and the basic premise is that parenting with a primary goal of raising happy children might be resulting in a generation of unhappy adults. It also posits that shielding kids from disappointment and rejection and pain doesn't do them any favors.


How many times as parents do we say, regarding our children and their futures, “I just want them to be happy.” As if that's the ultimate bottom line? The most important attribute we could ascribe to their adult selves?

Is there really anything wrong with that?

As a parent, it’s hard to hear one of your kids say “I’m not happy.” I mean, it’s sort of hard to hear it from a three-year old. But it’s sharply painful to hear it from a teenager/young adult. Your instinct, instilled from the moment of his/her birth, is to apply the bandage/erase the hurt/make it better. Because isn’t that our job? To make them well? Guide them along the road to happiness?

This article, and that speech, made me rethink happiness. I wondered, what if we stopped pursuing happiness, or just stopped considering it altogether? What would we insert in its place? What might constitute a better "pursuit?"

And how would my focus as a parent have changed if, instead of "I'm not happy" my son/daughter said, "I'm not ... compassionate."

How about, “I’m not generous.” “I’m not loving.” “I’m not kind.” "I'm not thoughtful."

When I look at it that way ... wow. Being somewhat unfulfilled or a bit bored with life or bummed out because you didn’t get invited to the party or disappointed because you didn’t get into your first choice college is … fine. Manageable. Lacking compassion is devastating.

I’m not sure how to resist being swept up in the cultural tsunami of The Self Actualized, Happy-at-all-Costs Child. It's tough enough to swim against the tide of parents in your own community, let alone a whole nation. Where we seem to think we have a constitutional right to happiness.

Maybe it's simply a matter of reordering priorities. Maybe move "compassion" to the top of the list for things we hope our children attain. Along with a capacity to forgive. The ability to show love. Loyalty. Generosity.

Somehow, I think if we make those sorts of things the goals, happiness will just happen. Something we discover along the way to a productive, unselfish life.

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