Beyond Happiness: Developing The Deeper Meaning
“What do you want most for your child?” The answers to this simple question have served as a societal mental health barometer for the past 70 years. Today, when asked this question, most parental responses are nearly unanimous, “I want them to be happy.” As the father of four children, that answer certainly resonates with me. Of course, I want my kids to be educated and have opportunities, but at the end of the day, I just want them to be happy. Let’s travel back in time to the early 50’s when a longitudinal study began to ask parents this very question. The responses back then were things like, “I want them to have integrity”, “…to be a hard worker”, “…to be responsible”. These varied answers shared the same common denominator: character.
I find it noteworthy that our societal/parental goals have transitioned from “I want them to have character”, to “I want them to be happy”. You would think that by focusing on happiness, that our society is happier. However, as we examine the psychopharmaceutical demand and suicidal epidemic that has engulfed our nation, I am not convinced that we are happier. There are innumerable contributing factors to this conclusion, however, I’m just going to unpack the potential effects of prioritizing happiness above all else.
When a child receives the parental (and societal) message that their happiness is the most important thing in the world, we counterintuitively hobble their progress towards happiness in 3 different ways.
- We misunderstand happiness. Happiness comes and goes, sometimes based upon circumstances, genetics, or choices. Regardless of the reason, happiness is NOT omnipresent. Our youth do not grasp that it is normal and okay to be unhappy at times. Instead, because there is a perpetuated belief that the most important thing in the world is to be happy, when they find themselves unhappy, they think that something must be terribly wrong. Unnecessary psychopathology can emerge as they feel broken for something so natural.
- Fostering self-centeredness. Do you remember the seagulls from the movie Finding Nemo that squawked, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”? Prioritizing happiness can have the unintentional consequence of promoting a very self-centered world view. Even our advertisements send this message with things like, “you deserve…”. Their lenses can become distorted by entitlement and victimization, resulting in the failure to learn the essential skills of accountability and perseverance.
- The forgotten law of the harvest. When you are so far removed from the beginning of the food chain, you can forget that meat, fruits and vegetables come from the farm, not from the store. Real happiness isn’t the euphoric feeling that comes from external dopamine sources like drugs, sex, tech, food, etc. True happiness comes from character development, accomplishments, healthy relationships, etc. These things take time to plant, nourish and THEN harvest the fruit of happiness. But when faced with the slow drip that comes from character-based dopamine sources in comparison to the high-flow external dopamine sources, the law of the harvest becomes a hard sell for most teens.
So why does wilderness work?
Distress tolerance. Without the distractions of movies, social media or substances, teens in the wilderness begin to feel emotions they have avoided for a long time. They begin learning how to feel their emotions, identify where they are coming from, and what adaptive tools they can use to manage their emotions.
Empathy development. As babies we are completely dependent. As teens we fight for independence. As mature adults, we realize that interdependence has a greater synergistic outcome. Wilderness groups live a communal lifestyle. They discover that if they work together toward shared goals, the results are mutually beneficial. This process helps untangle the egocentric knots they get stuck in.
Character development. The laws of mother nature provide effective justice. There is an endless supply of lessons in the wilderness: The practice you put toward making a good shelter now will result in better sleep tonight. The effort you put into making your backpack will match the comfort you experience while it is on your back. The preparations you make in the daylight will result in less fumbling around in the darkness. The law of the harvest provides ample daily life lessons.
Of course, I still want my kids to be happy! However, my refined goal is to teach them to find happiness through learning to manage their distress, develop empathy for others and grow in character. These things will provide longer lasting and more substantive happiness than any quick fix they can find from an external dopamine source.