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Teach kids to strive for well-being not for happiness: Why & How

Teach kids to strive for well-being not for happiness: Why & How

If you are like most parents you have often said “I just want my child to be happy”. Be careful what you wish for.

The search for happiness does not bring happiness. It brings dissatisfaction. It can even bring misery. What’s a parent to do? Well in fact it turns out you can be happy and your child can be happy, but not by searching for it.

Here is a reassuring fact. The human brain is not designed to be happy all the time. It is designed to be happy only in short bursts. Put another way it is healthy for your child to be unhappy some of the time.

What science tells us about happiness
Alex Korb, a neuroscientist, and the author of ‘The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Step at a Time’ says,

“Happiness refers to positive emotion. Happiness It is not even a good word to fully capture what it is that people are truly after. What people want to have is greater wellbeing and that involves having meaning and purpose in one’s life.”

When you look closely at what the ‘experts’ on happiness say, they too emphasize that happiness’ is not just about positive feelings of pleasure and joy. They say ‘true’ happiness can only be achieved by also having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Mean and purpose are subjective. They ae whatever you personally determine is meaningful and purposeful for you; what you feel brings you contentment and satisfaction in your life.

What is meaning and purpose?  It is not about you!

Meaning tends to refer to the questions “Why are we here? Or What’s it all about?” Meaning generally comes from a sense of connection with something bigger or outside yourself- Religion and spirituality give meaning to life. But more secular or humanistic meaning can come from affiliations with groups of people who have shared values for example, or who work toward a shared goal or enjoy like-minded pursuits. Purpose refers to ‘why you get up in the morning’ and ‘what motivates you’ or ‘what your central aims are in life’

When taking to kids use down to earth language. Kids can’t relate to such lofty concepts as meaning and purpose. But they can relate to what matters to them, what is important to them, what interests them or what they care about.

Here is a reality check. Happiness is temporary. The brain is wired, so that rewards in life give us a jolt of happiness or pleasure.  There is a long list of these rewards: food, fame, sex, money, attention, recognition, praise, winning a competition, purchasing new clothes or new gadgets, receiving a present; even the experience of novelty, like changing the channel, and of course alchohol and drugs.  But the brain is also designed so that the pleasure and happiness quickly fade. In order to feel them again you have to eat more food, become more famous, make more money, get more recognition, drink more, take more drugs. In other words the search for happiness is like a leaky bucket.  If all you care about is being happy, then it sets up a vicious cycle of having to obtain more of these things over and over, to keep the happiness bucket filled. This ultimately leads to chronic dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life.

Meaning and purpose are long lasting. Meaning and purpose involve the ups and downs of feeling. They require perseverance in the face of hard work and difficulty. They require coping with disappointment, frustration and even at times failure. That is why it is important to differentiate ‘happiness’ (of the temporary kind) from ‘true’ happiness, which only comes from having meaning and purpose as well as happy feelings in one’s life.

It can make you unhappy if you are too afraid of being unhappy. Keep in mind that unhappiness is a normal and inevitable part of life. If you try to avoid it, you will fail. It can help  your child not be so afraid of being unhappy if you teach them that  no matter how intense or painful, negative emotions do not last. Negative emotions come and then then they go. When your child is frustrated, or disappointed or hurt, remind them they are normal and inevitable. Remind them that although it is painful (!) now, the feeling will naturally get better over time all on its own.

How do you impart meaning and purpose into the life of your child? You don’t. You can’t. You may have found your own ‘spark’ in life. But you can’t simply give that to your child. You can’t do a ‘meaning and purpose’ infusion into your child. They must discover it for themselves. You can only assist the process along. Your child will show you, what they want, what matters to them, what gives them a spark. Your role is to notice, to be interested in listening to them when they talk about it and to help them pursue their interests. Kids by their very nature spontaneously find things they like to do and develop opinions about what is important to them. Kids like to talk about what matters to them. However, you need to give them the space and the acceptance to express their opinions- whatever they may be. Just being a good listener is often enough. If you have a back and forth conversation make sure it is back and forth- not a lecture. Make sure to avoid criticizing or judging what interest they have. Only they can create their spark. Don’t dampen it with too many of your own opinions or comments.

Play and the Purpose Driven Life’. If you watch children at play, it is perfect example of how kids spontaneously find purpose and meaning. They are intent at some goal, whether it be building a tower with blocks, or participating in a game of hide and seek, or simply chasing a friend around. They are excited. They are focused. They are motivated. This is why child development experts worry that kids are not given enough time these days for unsupervised play.

Suggestions for igniting meaning and purpose. These suggestions provide the opportunities where kids can discover what matters to them. But what they choose to pursue will ultimately be up to them. You can’t pressure someone to be interested. All you can do is to provide the nutrient environment where purpose and meaning can emerge spontaneously and authentically.

  • Start early with ways your child can help around the house. This kind of responsibility and service to others as part of a family group is an excellent start on the path toward wellbeing.
  • Engage in family traditions and family activities that kids can contribute to.
  • Be a role model for a life of meaning and purpose. Kids are sponges for internalizing how their parents are, more than what their parents say. Talk, for example, about your work or a hobby or a volunteer activity and what is important to you about it. Why you care about it.
  • Have dinner table conversations about meaningful issues. They can be simple, such as an event at school.  Or they can be deeper such as the preserving the environment or what is going on in the news. Be curious, interested and open to their point of view. Let it be spontaneous. Don’t insist they participate.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to take care of something- e.g., a pet or a plant or helping you with a chore. But again, only if it interests them.
  • Let them play. Let them get bored and find inventive ways to entertain themselves. Don’t overschedule them.

What if they find meaning and purpose in something you dislike? Ugh!!! This is where reflective parenting becomes essential. With little kids we may be bored out of our minds with Elsa and the story of Frozen, but we show interest when our child is delighted with it. When appropriate it is OK for you to acknowledge your child’s interest  ‘is not your cup of tea,’ as long as you don’t put your child down for being interested in it. Of course, there are limits to what you will allow your child to pursue. Sometimes it is too expensive for the family. Sometimes you may believe it is unhealthy, or dangerous. In such case you can refuse to allow it. But beyond these limitations, as much as possible you want to encourage your child to follow their interests.

Your Take Home Lesson: Acceptance that you can’t always be happy Yes, it is perfectly normal for a parent to feel pain when their child is unhappy.  However, accepting the fact that some unhappiness is simply part of how life is one of the most important lessons you will  learn yourself or teach your child. How do you teach it? You talk about feelings, all feelings, positive and negative ones. Role model that you accept your negative feelings and you validate their negative emotions as a normal part of life. You can certainly try to soothe and comfort negative feelings. The point is to not try to erase them, or require your child to always see the happy or positive side of the situation. Acceptance of the natural unhappy times or pains of life, builds your child’s coping muscles and strengthens their resiliency. In other words, they do better in life despite the down times and they bounce back from difficult times more easily. And in the end they will be happier.

Fortunately, if you are a Reflective Parent you are ahead of the game. Being reflective at its core, is the ability to find meaning in our social relationships and to be open and curious as to what is on our child’s mind.




As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I have been in private practice for over 35 years, with a special interest in parents and couples.


Nothing from October 3, 2022 to April 2, 2023.