The Danger of Seeking Happiness: How to Protect Your Children
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
As I point out in my article The Secret of Happiness: Let It Find You (But Make the Effort)
the more we try to seek happiness, the more it eludes us. In fact, those who highly value happiness are more likely to have negative emotional states such as depression. Recent research that expands upon this concept shows that extreme valuing of happiness is not just associated with depression but is a risk factor for depressive disorders (Ford et al., 2015).
To understand what this means we need to look at the concept of “risk factor.” You may already be familiar with risk factors related to physical disorders. For instance, obesity increases the likelihood of diabetes. Or, smoking increases the likelihood of lung cancer. A risk factor does not mean that the illness will occur but that it has a higher than average risk of occurring.
What this means for happiness and depression is that those who place an extreme value on being happy are more at risk for becoming depressed. Some people might argue that because depressed people already have more negative emotions, they may place more value on happiness to counter-act this state. However, researcher Ford and colleagues indicate that the extreme valuing of happiness occurs prior to the depressive disorder, and thus, can be predictive of those more likely to develop a depressive illness.
Although the extreme valuing of happiness may not be the full cause of the development of depressive disorders, it gives us pause to consider whether there could be a protective effect from learning a more balanced perspective regarding happiness. For instance, in my article I discuss creating “the opportunities for happiness” rather than trying to create happiness. We can focus on increasing the activities in our lives that are associated with happiness rather than focusing on happiness itself. Such activities include social connection, sense of purpose, service to others, emotional tolerance of discomfort, health practices, and self-contentment. Those who focus on strengthening these aspects of their lives are more likely to be happy.
More importantly, though, if there is a protective effect of a more balanced perspective, we need to seriously reconsider the messages we provide our children (as well as ourselves). Instead of defining happiness for our children as always being comfortable and having what they desire, we can teach them to engage in the activities that are more likely to contribute to happiness. For instance, a child who learns to sacrifice personal comfort to help others is learning the behaviors that can lead to greater happiness in the future. Such a sacrifice can simply be helping the family by doing chores when the child would rather be playing to giving money to a needy child in lieu of buying a toy.
Of course, this means discomfort for the parents as well because looking out for your child's future well-being is more difficult than making them momentarily happy. It also means learning to ignore or counter the messages of the media, movies, and television that teach us to seek material gain and euphoria as a means to happiness.
For more information on creating the opportunities for happiness, my articles are now available on Kindle
Ford, B.Q., Mauss, I.B. and Gruber, J. (2015). Valuing Happiness Is Associated With Bipolar Disorder. Emotion, 15, 211–222. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000048
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