The Happiness Myth: The Damage of Constant Joy

Categories: General Parenting

If you ask a parent what they want for their children, they will probably say this:

Health and happiness.

No arguments here for the first one, but is the second a good idea?

Why did securing happiness for our kids become a goal that we reached for above just about everything else?

Everyone likes to be happy, that’s understandable. But, is it possible that all our efforts to help them be happy mean that they’re missing out on important learning in other, less pleasant emotional states?

As parents, we’re conditioned to want the best for our kids. We want them to have lives that are free from significant physical and emotional pain. We want them to have good lives, according to our definition of ‘good’. We don’t want them to suffer. This drive is innate and powerful and it’s what makes us good parents, keeping our offspring from harm. But, maybe a little suffering could actually be a good thing…

Now, when we talk about suffering, what we’re meaning in this context is the experience of temporary negative or unpleasant emotions. This might be feeling angry, left out, sad, hurt, uncomfortable, inadequate, defeated or troubled. It could last an hour, a day, or a week. If it goes beyond this, then it may not be a temporary state anymore, and the damage could be greater. But, when it is a temporary state, there’s learning in it, and the learning could actually make our children’s experience of happiness even richer by comparison. 

Seeing and knowing what’s on the other side of the happiness coin contributes to their social and emotional growth by allowing them to develop empathy and perspective, says ParentTV expert and psychologist, Dr Vanessa Lapointe.

‘Social and emotional development can not be taught, it needs to be experienced. So, one of our challenges as parents is working out how to give our children the experiences they need to be social and emotional beings at their fullest maturity.’

Dr Vanessa Lapointe

In other words, to become a fully actualised and emotionally intelligent human being, kids need to experience a whole spectrum of human feelings, not just happiness.

WATCH: 5 ways to grow your child’s social and emotional brain, with Dr Vanessa Lapointe

Then there’s the problem of managing expectations. When we act with the happiness of our child as our focus for the majority of our time, other things are sacrificed by necessity, right? A lot of parents have had the experience of their own needs being the first thing that goes out the window to make sure the kids are happy, and that’s sure as heck is not sustainable. And, what does this teach our kids? That they’re the centre of the world and everyone else should bend to accommodate them? Again, seems pretty unsustainable! 

So, what else does the experience of unpleasant emotions teach our kids? 

Resilience, for one thing, says ParentTV expert and Psychologist, Dr Jodie Lowinger, is built when kids are allowed to feel, sit with and move through feelings they find unpleasant, without trying to suppress them.

‘We want to communicate to children that all feelings are okay. We don’t want them to think that emotions are a weakness, weird or bad. This can lead to distress intolerance, which is when they feel like they need to shut down emotions.’

Dr Jodie Lowinger

But, when children see that they can and will come out the other side of a negative experience, they become more confident in their ability to cope the next time it happens. If we shield children from any unpleasantness, they don’t get the opportunity to learn just how much they are capable of managing, nor do they get the chance to develop the coping strategies that help them do it. 

WATCH:  Building resilience in children from early days, with Dr Jodie Lowinger

A sense of self-reliance is another positive outcome of dealing with unpleasant emotions, Dr Lowinger and Dr Lapointe agree. ‘It’s our natural inclination as loving parents to want to protect our children from emotional distress, so we hold them close and reassure them,’ Dr Lowinger says. ‘But, these behaviours can inadvertently fuel anxiety. It’s a bi-directional relationship.’ If we teach children they need us to cope, they will believe they cannot cope without our assistance.

This applies to the experience of boredom, too, Dr Lapointe suggests. For a lot of our kids, ‘happy’ and ‘entertained’ are inextricably linked, but making sure they’re always entertained actually does them a disservice. ‘It’s in the quiet stillness of boredom that children can actually hear themselves and connect with who they really are,’ Dr Lapointe says. ‘It’s in the quiet stillness of boredom that children can begin to emerge with curiosity, a sense of exploration and adventure, and begin to take on things in life that they may otherwise not have brushed up against. We want our kids to be bored. When kids are bored, they problem-solve. They get creative and head into situations that might have otherwise been unpalatable to them.’

That’s when they grow the most.

Ultimately, we will always want our kids to have lives that are full of joy and that are light on misery and despair. We’d be kind of awful if we didn’t want that! But, there’s a difference between deliberately smoothing the way so our kids are happy all the time and allowing organic opportunities to experience unpleasantness happen without running interference. That way, we help kids to know and appreciate happiness when it’s there and believe in their ability to cope when it’s not.