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The Fallacy Of Happiness

In a recent First Things [1] post, the physician-author asks a legitimate question as he chronicles the prolific achievements of children of immigrants in the United States in various academic competitions: “Why are American-born children now under-represented among the ranks of the innovative?”  His conclusion regarding this “collapse of creativity” among American youth is that parents have succumbed to the worst elements of the popular philosophy “I just want my child to be happy,” which almost universally results in the Instagram, Snapchat girl or the video-game (or worse, “pornified”) boy.

The solution?  Before feeding a child’s desire, we must first educate his or her desire.  Children will pursue the good naturally, but must be formed to see the timeless goods of life, and not the empty, immediate false goods which assault us daily.  Pursuit of timeless goods will lead to meaningful success for youth, and not mere achievements and awards.  This is easier said than done, but it is not impossible.

The Fallacy of the Happiness Goal

The fundamental misunderstanding that many parents and children have is thinking that happiness is the ultimate goal of any activity or decision-making process.  This perspective misses two critical things.  The first is that happiness is not a destination or a directly-achievable goal but rather, it is an emotion—just like sorrow, anger, etc.—which comes and goes in response to circumstances and perceptions.  The second is that what people truly desire is joy, the fruit, the outcome, of a life well-lived, where one pursues his vocation in a manner consistent with his gifts.

The positive experience of joy, which encompasses both happiness and peace or contentment, can endure even after an entertaining experience fades.  At a recent seminar I attended, the presenter emphasized the importance of being able to answer one simple question: What do you stand for?  Being able to identify the answer to this question provides a template and a trajectory for how to go about living life, and if you live your life according to well-ordered personal convictions and commitments, life may not be easy, and at times you will surely not be happy, but, you should be filled with peace and serenity (as opposed to interior conflict), the fruit of which will be joy.

The problematic alternative to being educated about what is a proper desire, and parlaying that into a fruitful joy, is to be led around by one’s feelings, the latest whims, or the shiniest object in the room.  Christian ethics have long recognized the danger of such a course.  Consider St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (4:11-14).  The Letter first emphasizes how every human person is endowed with gifts, though not all identically:

…he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry;

then is described how to grow maturely:

…so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming.

How easy it is to be thrown off course if not rooted in truth and accepting of the gifts given—and being willing to use those gifts for the good of others.

Parent’s Challenge

This formula for joy is not the easy path or the quick fix, but it will save children, their families, all of us, really, an enormous amount of pain and distress.  The key elements are:

  1. Parents always speaking the truth in love – our children profit little from being indulged in distortions of reality (the current fascination with transgenderism and Harry Potter-style magic are but two of the most egregious examples);
  2. Acceptance of the intrinsic gifts with which one’s child is born, whether the gift be superior intellect that allows one to pursue higher education and make incredible discoveries, or a gift of affectionate and unconditional love as seen in many persons with developmental challenges such as Down’s Syndrome; and
  3. Fostering the development and use of those gifts for others – taking the risk and responsibility of developing the gifts in our children with which they are endowed, and teaching them to apply their gifts to the common good, participating in society and caring for the poor and most vulnerable.

As parents, we must recall that the best way to instill these virtues in our children, and thereby achieve our goal of fostering for them a joyful life, is by living them ourselves.  Children are keen observers of those around them, first parents and then later peers, and they will recognize if a parent is full of joy.  A wise psychiatrist once said that the best way to love a child is by having them bask in the glow of the parents’ love for each other.  Joy for our children comes from emotional and interpersonal healthiness in our families, not from money, things or gadgets. And joyful children are creative children, successful children—in the truest sense of the word—and flourishing children.