Pursuing Happiness

Lynne 150If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

Perhaps I’ve overthought this — but the lyrics to this well-known nursery rhyme and game have always struck me as problematic. The subsequent verses implore children to stomp their feet, shout “hurray,” and otherwise demonstrate their assumed happiness through a variety of actions. Really, though, what child is going to abstain when everyone around her is stomping and shouting?

“I’m really feeling sort of sad today, I’ll just sit this one out,” said no child, ever, when standing in a circle with peers celebrating their joy. The reality is that this song and game are not invitations to participate IF you are happy, but rather, a directive to pretend you are — because it’s expected of you.

In particular with girls, this message of assumed, expected happiness troubles me in a number of ways. It is, unfortunately, a message that seems ubiquitous — from packed university courses devoted to identifying, capturing, and maintaining happiness, to the 20,000 Amazon titles a search for “happiness, self help” yields. The mega-hit song, “Happy,” recorded by Pharrell Williams in 2013, is the anthem this movement lacked.

Are we right to envision a “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year” kind of happiness? And if we don’t attain that — are we doing something wrong?

Are we right to envision a “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year” kind of happiness? And if we don’t attain that — are we doing something wrong?

I worry that as a society we are approaching a collective sensibility that does, indeed, expect happiness. When reality pans out otherwise, even for a day or week or month, the response, too often, is a rush to fix. Nowhere is this more true, in my opinion, than in the realm of parenting. Why are we all so obsessed with the goal of uninterrupted, unadulterated happiness for our children and ourselves?

Maybe it’s natural to want our children to be happy all the time — it can hurt to see them not so. But in service to that wish, unhappiness that is a natural consequence of disappointment, poor choices, fatigue, changing friendships, an unsatisfactory grade, not being selected for a team or cast, and a myriad of other events in the life of an adolescent is seen as needing to be fixed, even pathological.

These times when happiness eludes our children, however, are critical to their growth. These are the times when our children, consciously or not, reflect upon what is making them unhappy, what they might do differently, how they can cope and persevere, and how they can regain the happiness that feels so much lighter and more comfortable.

In an article titled, “Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down,” published in the Jan. 6, 2015 issue of Psychology Today, author Matthew Hutson states “Each component of every emotion has a critical job to do — whether it’s preparing us to move toward what we want (anger), urging us to improve our standing (envy), or allowing us to undo a social gaffe (embarrassment).”

These times when happiness eludes our children, however, are critical to their growth.

As students, our daughters are often challenged by material and situations that are new, and the confusion that results is unsettling… which can translate at home to, “I’m unhappy.” That confusion/unhappiness, however, can ultimately be beneficial, as Hutson explains: “The emotional discomfort of confusion drives problem solving. Education researchers talk about ‘desirable difficulties,’ which force students to engage with material and process information deeply.”

The message of “all happiness, all the time,” and the way it can be perceived by girls, concerns me; as we know, many girls want to please. They want to do “the right thing,” at times to the point of perfectionism.

At Agnes Irwin we empower girls to develop their voices, to speak confidently, to advocate for themselves — even if what they have to say is critical, or in conflict with the current norm. Is it possible that the drive to be and appear happy holds some girls back from the honesty demanded by tough situations? Is it the expectation of 24/7 happiness that causes the sad or struggling girl to perk up, force a smile, and say, “Great!” when asked how she’s doing? I wonder if some girls feel so bad about feeling bad that they hide their sadness, preventing legitimate feelings from coming to light and delaying needed support.

Extreme peaks and valleys, rapidly cycling mood changes, or prolonged unhappiness may signal health issues requiring intervention. But a girl who feels less than happy, from time to time, in response to the many challenges and setbacks inherent to growing up, is actually on the right track.

As a species, our survival has depended upon familiarity with the full range of human emotions, including fear, anger, and embarrassment. As adolescents, our daughters benefit from the same authentic experiences; they do not need to pursue what Hutson calls “permanent residence on the spectrum between contentment and ecstasy,” and we must guard against encouraging or expecting them to do so.

Lynne Myavec, Middle School Director

You may also like

Understanding the Middle Schooler Mindset and Fairness
How To See Your Selfie: Developing Leadership Identities in Girls
Promoting Emotional Intelligence in School and Home
The Transitive Property: Not Just for Math Facts, Anymore

2 Responses

  1. judypeeler@gmail.com'
    Judy Peeler

    Thanks so much for this, Lynne. One of the only pieces of parenting advice that ever stuck with me is that, not only is it my responsibility to to keep my girls safe and secure, but it is also critical that I help them develop the skills to manage themselves through the times when they uncomfortable and uncertain.

Leave a Reply