Our society places a disproportionate emphasis on happiness. Capitalism thrives on it. Advertisements leverage it. Self-improvement promises it. We think we must be doing something wrong if we haven’t obtained it. You’ve probably even heard parents say it: “I just want my kids to be happy.”
We equate happiness with fulfillment, with discipline, with success and prosperity. If one doesn’t grow up to be “happy”, then one should reconsider their life choices and “make a change”, because arriving at the doorstep of happiness eventually is better than never arriving at all. But what if the goal was never supposed to be happiness?
What if a day spent being sad, or one spent grieving, lamenting, or simply melancholy, is not bad but instead just one part of the beautiful spectrum that makes up the human experience? What if a life well-lived is not one firmly nailed to the door of happiness, but one in which we fully engage life exactly where we are, no matter what it throws at us?
We cannot boil the entirety of a fulfilling life down to a solitary feeling in a gamut of emotions. If I had to pigeonhole the definition of a successful life into one word, there are many I would choose before “happy” anyway––faithful, compassionate, loyal, empathetic, hard-working, content, loving, steadfast, humble, kind, brave, or generous, to name a few.
If you want to know how to raise a happy kid, there are plenty of people out there who will tell you how to do it:
The problem is, being “happy” is abstract. It is not a concrete, practical, attainable goal, which is maybe why kids (and adults alike) are so anxious, neurotic, and unfulfilled these days. How do you know if you are truly happy? What exactly does “happy” look like? And even if you are happy today, there is no guarantee you will still be so tomorrow.
Besides, kids don’t really know what makes them happy. [Scratch that] They know exactly what would make them happy––eating McDonald’s everyday for lunch, having unrestricted access to an endless supply of candy, staying up as late as they want, watching tv or gaming all day, not going to school, never doing chores, and basically being able to do whatever they want whenever they want without any regard to expense, inconvenience, or impact on their physical, emotional, or mental health.
Sometimes I don’t even know what would make me happy on any given day. Do you? Other times it’s little things, like a cold drink after a long day, a warm cup of coffee, a little bouquet of flowers, time to create, lunch with a friend, a hot shower, or an hour by myself. There are also plenty of things that don’t make me happy, like folding laundry and washing dishes, cleaning toilets and sopping dog urine out of the carpet, or pulling weeds and taking out the garbage, but those things need done, too.
Maybe the bigger issue here is a life centered around “happiness” is ultimately about me, and I’ve come to believe that every good, rewarding, soul-nourishing, fulfilling and deeply satisfying thing can be found not in focusing more on our own life but rather in laying it down. That being said, here’s what I do want for my kids:
I want my kids to love deeply and unconditionally and also experience the profound grief that accompanies its loss.
I want my kids to have firm opinions and be willing to take a stand (I’m going to regret those words in 3...2...1…). I want them to learn how to communicate effectively and understand that disagreement doesn’t equal the end of a relationship. I want them to know they can fight without screaming, get their point across without belittling, and actively listen without agreeing, because we don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to love one another.
I want them to do the right thing over the easy thing, especially if it costs them something. When they come to a fork in the road, I don’t want them to go left or right. Instead, I hope they risk walking straight ahead, making their way through the wilderness and blazing new trails, regardless of how scary the unknown can be.
I want my kids to include the outsiders, rally with the underdogs, stand with the demonized, and experience the unpopularity and rejection that goes along with it.
I want my kids to face hardship––dare I say even suffer––because it will show them how much they need God and that they cannot, in fact, make it through life on their own. It will also show them they are capable of enduring more than they ever dared to imagine, and it will produce in them the character and resilience of one who has been through the fire and survived.
I want my kids to know joy, peace, hope, and comfort but to also empathetically be willing to give it away so others may know the same. I want them to bear the burdens of others, because, although walking toward the pain of another is one of the most difficult, uncomfortable, excruciating, and humbling endeavors, it’s also one of the purest glimpses of Jesus this side of heaven.
I want my kids to be bored so creativity has room to grow. I want them to be disappointed from time to time when things don't go as planned, as this is a good precursor to the reality of life. I also want them to know that disappointment is temporary and expectations can be adjusted. Not only that, but they are guaranteed to wring more joy out of life if they do so.
I want my kids to work hard for the things that will not only make their lives better but also better the lives of those around them. I want them to experience failure and learn from it. I want them to reach the bottom of their rope––to feel like they simply cannot do it anymore, like they couldn’t possibly take one more step, and to live the miracle of Christ made perfect in their weakness.
I want my kids to cry—a lot. I want their souls to brim with tears when they connect with the reality of God’s goodness and His kingdom right here among us. I want them to see this broken world and all the people in it through eyes of compassion and not be afraid to weep, just like Jesus did. I pray that they will be able to see beauty in the ordinary places and imperfect people right in front of them, and that the brilliant light of grace will result in a saltwater baptism every time.
I want my kids to be willing to serve without reciprocation, to love without expectation, and to sacrifice much without reward in order to share in the suffering of Christ as we pick up our cross and follow after Him together, because it’s in surrender and death that we are raised to new life.
I want my kids to know that happiness, like art, coffee, and friendship, isn’t vital to survival, but it certainly makes surviving more enjoyable. As it turns out, happiness is merely an accessory, not the entire outfit; it's a companion on the journey––one who sometimes chooses to walk close by our side and other times, tiring of the legwork, opts to catch a bus and meet us at the next stop instead––not the destination.
Do I want my kids to be happy? Of course. I just want them to know there is so, so very much more to a fulfilling life than that.
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