By Doni Joszef
Happy days are here again . . .
Adar calls for “increased happiness,” which is easier said than done. Clichés and tacky one-liners bombard us from every direction:
“If you want to be happy, choose to be happy!”
“Why aren’t you happy? What are you waiting for!”
“Be happy! Now! Forever! HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY!”
Such slogans are irritating and, more importantly, misleading.
They make it seem so simple. So easy. So basic that there must be something wrong with me if I’m not constantly whistling and skipping through life.
Happiness is not as simple as the self-help gurus and motivational speakers make it seem. Honest “happiness experts” will admit that their increased knowledge on the subject doesn’t always translate into increased experience of the actual emotion. Lots of people talk the talk (and make a pretty penny doing so); but to walk the walk is an entirely different ballgame. Because happiness doesn’t have a monopoly on the feeling market. Fear, sadness, frustration, shame—they have a part in the show of life, too. And the more we try to deny them space in our emotional storehouses, the more disappointed we will be upon their inevitable “guest appearances” in our lives.
So I will state that I’m far from a “happiness expert.” I’m predisposed to pessimism; I’m more critical and judgmental than I’m proud to admit. I get frustrated. I get nervous. And I get into bad moods. Simply put, I’m a real person. And I have a feeling that you are too.
Can happiness really be taught? Is this something we should bother integrating into our parenting and teaching styles? And, if so, is there an efficient and effective way to do so? For a long time, the answer was no, presumably for two reasons:
1. Happiness was never such a universal expectation. Life was, for the most part, assumed to be challenging, painful, and difficult. Then came American dreams, self-help sections, pharmaceutical campaigns, media marketing, and positive psychology pep-talkers—all selling us on the idea that happiness can be captured and secured (if only we buy the book or the speech or the pill which happens to be proclaiming these promises). In the mid-’90s, regulations which used to limit pharmaceutical marketing to very specific populations were greatly loosened to allow for general-audience targeting, leading to an influx of commercials and ads persuading us to believe that we need pills if we’re not constantly happy, joyous, and carefree.
“Doctor, doctor, can you give me what they sell in that commercial?”
Doctors like keeping their patients happy, and so they’ll often prescribe whatever the patient requests (and if they don’t, the patient can simply replace one doctor with another). Medicine is a business, too.
Over the past several decades, happiness has gradually become an expectation, a universal “right,” a demand. So, according to the laws of economics, we seek to supply what our customers demand.
Our students and children expect happiness, and if we don’t find healthy ways for them to discover it, they’ll find less-healthy ways of quenching this thirst for themselves. There is, unfortunately, no shortage of options at their (and our) disposal.
2. Happiness was not scientifically studied until recently. Until the 1990s, when Martin Seligman made it his mission to transform happiness from elusive emotion to scientific subject, there wasn’t much academic literature on the topic. There were philosophical speculations, there were spiritual programs, but the world of academic psychology was more concerned with exploring and understanding neurosis than it was with promoting happiness. The field of positive psychology emerged out of a collective interest in what makes life enjoyable. What makes things flow? What promotes flourishing? What produces optimism? Where do creativity and gratitude come from? These questions began to sprout more and more, as these new “positive psychologists” studied various facets of the emotion we call happiness.
Ironically, the more we demand our fair share of happiness, and the more psychologists, motivational speakers, and pharmaceutical products perpetually promise simple solutions to the happiness problem, the less happy we seem to be. We’ve become so “happiness obsessed” that we can’t tolerate the fact that life is challenging, and emotions come in many different shapes and colors—happiness being only one of many.
Students don’t need “happiness guarantees” or “positive affirmations” shoved down their throats. They need to see it modeled—in living color—by their parents and teachers. They need to see mature, stable, resilient role models. They need to be assured that life is not “unfair” just because it’s challenging and demanding.
They need this now more than ever, because they are overly exposed to a world of negativity, cynicism, and skepticism. The media, the economy, the politics, the religious systems—they’ve all been plagued by scandal and corruption. The dark side of humanity has been plastered on screens, tweets, Facebook walls, and newspaper headlines. Every day, another authority figure is faced with new charges and accusations. Our sense of trust, security, and stability has been shaken to the core. So, yes, times have changed.
Happiness is being pursued more than ever. And happiness eludes us more than ever.
Now let’s look at some of the practical ways by which we can foster a sense of happiness—in ourselves, our students, and our children—while keeping in mind the fact that happiness is not the only emotion we should expect to experience, nor is there any “quick fix,” “simple solution,” or “revolutionary plan” to get around this fact. If a speaker, author, or doctor claims the contrary, I can wholeheartedly guarantee that they’re full of it. And if you don’t believe me, ask their spouses (or ex-spouses).
Fostering A Sense
Model it (but don’t fake it). The most obvious, and the most challenging way, to teach happiness is to model it ourselves. Children learn through exposure and experience. They don’t need to hear “happiness promotions”; they need to witness genuinely happy and healthy lives. Attraction generally works far better than promotion when it comes to emotional development. So if you want your students or children to be happy, the first person you need to work on is the one reading these words. If you try to fake a sense of happiness by wearing a plastic smile and fabricating a chirpy tone of voice, the kids will see right through you. Emotional honesty and sincerity is the key. Better to accept and acknowledge your negative moods than to put on a show and pretend to be Mr. or Mrs. Happy-Go-Lucky. You’re not fooling anyone, so try not to fool yourself.
Reframe negative self-talk. I was trained primarily in cognitive therapy, which is based on the assumption that thoughts create feelings. Therefore, teaching happiness starts with teaching rational, realistic, and healthy thinking and correcting irrational, unrealistic, unhealthy thought patterns. For better or worse, children are irrational and unrealistic by nature, and if they are born with a pessimistic nature (which many of us are) they’ll talk to themselves in overly negative ways. Your job is to point out these negative or irrational patterns in an instructive rather than coercive way.
Some examples of such patterns:
Personalizing the negative. “We lost the game. I’m such an idiot! I totally sucked!” Corrective response: “Was it really all your fault? And even if you made a mistake, does that make you an idiot?”
Catastrophic thinking. “I failed my test! This is a disaster! My parents will kill me! My college plans are doomed!” Corrective response: “Hold those horses. It was one test. You have many other tests and classes which you’ve passed. Let’s put this in proper perspective. It was a minor failure among many successes.”
There are many more examples of these so-called “cognitive distortions,” but the key to remember is that children’s self-talk is often exaggerated and self-defeating. Be aware of these distorted statements as they subtly arise in conversations with your students and children. Remember: you’re teaching them positive, rational thinking. Brainwashing, in an ideal sense of the term.
Sweeten negative feedback with positive reinforcement. Along the above lines of reframing negative self-talk is reframing our own negative feedback. We need to be critical and honest in our assessments, but there’s a way to sweeten the medicine of constructive criticism with the sugar of constructive compliments. If we only give negative feedback without any nuggets of encouragement, our chances of developing a meaningful relationship with our children or students will rapidly plummet. Which brings us to . . .
Create meaningful relationships. The famine of our times is not a lack of caloric nourishment, but a lack of interpersonal nourishment. Children are starving for genuine connections with sincere and present adults. Sincerity means you’re trying to be genuine, authentic, and real. It means you’re not putting on a facade or playing a role. It means you are open to input and welcome feedback without defensiveness and self-preserving justifications. Presence means offering them your undivided attention—no iPhone or iPad screens popping in and out of the conversation, no dozing off into your own mind while your child or student begs for your undivided attention. Easier said than done, no doubt.
Show interest in their interests. Never undermine the personal interest of a child. There are countless stories about Rav Shlomo Freifeld, z’l, taking personal interest in his students’ seemingly mundane fascinations; one student was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, so Rav Freifeld listened to a Hendrix album to get a taste of his student’s taste. Another was fascinated by astronomy, so he took out astronomy books from the local library to read up on the subject and better acquaint himself with what his student felt passionate about. Showing interest in their interests validates their sense of passion, and proves to them that you’re willing to leave your comfort zone for the sake of entering theirs.
Spirituality Gives Us Meaning And Purpose
Our children need meaning and purpose in their lives. Our best bet at creating happy and emotionally healthy children is to put happiness in its proper place within a greater scope of purposeful living. The pursuit of happiness is doomed to failure if we make it our one and only mission in life. As Victor Frankl writes, happiness ensues not when we desperately pursue it, but when we strive toward meaningful goals and are willing to struggle with the discipline and discomfort that responsibility demands. Happiness is not a goal, but a byproduct of having goals, aspirations, and a deeper purpose for living.
The surest way to ensure happy children is to provide them with a sense of purpose and foster a sense of passion for pursuing that purpose. In the end, it’s not the “what,” “how,” or “when” which matters most, but the “why” which makes life a fulfilling and flourishing experience. Teach your children to value a life of meaning, and you’ll teach them how to live an emotionally stable, morally responsible, spiritually sustainable way of life. And if happiness ensues, which we suspect it will, we’ll feel doubly rewarded. v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice and presents innovative workshops on a variety of psychosocial topics. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.