We Don’t Actually Want Our Kids to Be Happy

By Andrew McPeak


“To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude, and hope.” — David Brooks


In 2014, a fascinating report from the Harvard Graduation School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project revealed a startling contrast between the message parents intend to send to their children and the one that is getting through. The report entitled “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values” surveyed over 10,000 middle and high school-aged students about what was most important to them: “achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others.”


The results were striking: 


“Almost 80% of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20% selected caring for others.”

One student in the survey summed up their opinion: “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”


What’s most interesting about this blatantly self-focused perspective in our students is where they got it from. In similar surveys of adults over the same timeframe, “most parents and teachers say that developing caring children is a top priority and rank it as more important than children’s achievements.” But youth aren’t buying it:


“About 80% of the youth in our survey report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. A similar percentage of youth perceive teachers as prioritizing students’ achievements over their caring. Youth were also 3 times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”


I’d like to summarize all that we are learning here: 

1. If you ask a parent or a teacher what is most important in the development of the young people under their care, they will say things like “kindness,” “care,” or “character.” 

2. When you ask students what they think their parents and teachers really care about, they say things like “achievement” or “happiness.” 

3. So, which answer is it? The one we are practicing, of course. 


Ironically, adults’ obsession with their kids’ happiness over kindness and achievement over purpose has backfired. According to research by Suniya S. Luthar, “children from affluent communities who are subjected to intense achievement pressure by their parents don’t appear to outperform other students.” Instead of success or happiness, the most common traits these happiness-chasing students share today are stress and loneliness. Is it possible that in making happiness the goal, we were mistaken? I think so.


A Goal More Important Than Happiness

So, if success (and the happiness we think it will bring) is not the goal, what is? In his excellent book on the pursuit of the most fulfilling version of life, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, bestselling author David Brooks writes: 


”We think we want ease and comfort, and of course we do from time to time, but there is something inside us that longs for some calling that requires dedication and sacrifice.”


What Brooks means, and we all know intrinsically, is that true life satisfaction comes not from rising above the little struggles and sacrifices in life but from embracing them. When our kids embrace the challenges and struggles they face for the sake of something bigger, instead of happiness, they find another more helpful outcome: joy. Whereas happiness results from achievement or pleasure, joy comes from meaning and purpose. Because they center themselves around a higher purpose, people with joy are not as vulnerable to life’s little obstacles, like failed math tests and athletic injuries, or life’s significant obstacles, such as the loss of a loved one. A student’s access to meaning and purpose gives them an unshakeable steadiness. Joy is a much better goal than happiness. 


Sadly, not a lot of students are feeling purposeful these days. In a study for his book, The Path to Purpose, William Damon found that only 20 percent of young adults have a fully realized sense of purpose. So, how can we help our students find both purpose and the joy it brings? Here are a few ideas: 


1. Young people need opportunities to discover their passions. I remember watching my brother work at his love of music for hours upon hours when I was growing up. Even back then, my younger brother had found something he was willing to give up his time and resources to chase. It’s not surprising he is still making music today — now in his thirties. Do you know where the word “passion” comes from? The root means “to suffer.” Young people need opportunities to discover the things they are willing to spend their time and resources on simply because they love them. What opportunities are your students getting to find out what they love?


2. Young people need parents, leaders, and mentors who recognize their joy.  A friend of mine likes to say that “the only thing rarer than genius is the ability to recognize it.” When a young person finds a passion or purpose, it is doubtful they will also realize what they have discovered. They need adults who call out the joy they experience and encourage them to chase it. What activities are most likely to bring a smile to their face? What could they spend hours doing without even realizing it? 


3. Young leaders need us to model and communicate in a better way. As we saw in the surveys, most adults believe one thing about success but teach their kids another. If you are one of those adults who genuinely desires your child or student’s joy over their happiness, then you must embody that belief. Let them chase goals that are unlikely to bring financial success. Find ways to model personal sacrifice and even talk about it with kids. Discover ways to celebrate kindness, generosity, attitude, and effort as often as you do their test scores and sports stats. It’s not that one is terrible and the other is good. The two just need to be in balance. 


There is a simple way to understand the difference between happiness and joy. 


Chasing happiness will bring short-term gain but long-term pain. Chasing joy might bring short-term pain, but it will bring long-term gain. 


Leaders, let’s start choosing the bigger picture today. For our children’s future — and their joy — let’s lead them down a different path.


We Don’t Actually Want Our Kids to Be Happy