I just want you to be happy, we tell our kids as they step into the world.
I understand why we say this. We’re usually just coming off the back of the teenage years and all they brought with them: alcohol, drugs, bullying and friendship issues, mental health troubles, gaming, social media, sex and porn. Even if you didn’t knock up against one of these personally you’ll be only too aware of others who have.
So it’s fair to want happiness for our kids — and less angst for ourselves.
But we need to stop there.
Because telling young people we want them to be happy is the tallest order of all: I mean, how many people do you know who are basking in joy juice? I haven’t met many and when I do I remember them.
As a psychologist I see lots of young people, not necessarily clinically depressed and anxious, but paralysed by indecision and worried about their futures. What should I study? What career path should I take? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I waste time and money? What if I let people down? What if I don’t live up to the dream?
So happiness is not something they can comprehend, let alone chase down. Besides, their concept of a happy life and relationship is often (sadly) quite different from the one we have modelled to them.
We can’t change the complex, crazy, competitive world we’re living in, but we can release the pressure valve on our kids by giving them better advice or, when appropriate, no advice at all.
Here are a few (well-meaning) tips.
Shut Up About Happiness and Say This Instead
1. You don’t need a grand plan.
Just start something. Part of the fun of life is NOT knowing where it’s going. Clarity of purpose is a fine aim but not a very realistic one when you are young and living in the 21st Century. Trying too hard to figure out the end-game takes away the pleasure of the moment and applies pressure you don’t need — and may not yet be equipped to handle.
2. Don’t do what you love. Do what intrigues you.
Give up the passion hunt. Only a rare few have their pathway lit from a very early age. Most of us need to explore, try things, stumble and mess up. All of it adds to your knowledge, experiences and perspective. So go be curious, and learn things, instead.
3. A single decision doesn’t matter.
Decisions come and go. So do choices. Whatever choice you are facing won’t be the last one you ever have so don’t give it that much power. Over-hyping it will make you fearful and timid when it’s better (and healthier) to go bold. Even if it doesn’t work out you’ll learn things.
4. All paths lead to somewhere or other.
Nothing is wasted. Even that monotonous, minimum-wage job you think is beneath you has something to offer or to teach you. Your mission is to look for it.
5. Jump with two feet.
Whatever you do, throw your heart over the bar. Being one foot in, one foot out prevents you from fully engaging with anything from jobs to interests to relationships. Don’t be half-hearted about your life. Deliver your whole self to whatever the task at hand and see what happens.
6. Keep your tank topped up.
Self care, learning, creativity and nourishment are huge. Build up tools and strategies to arm you for the crap that invariably comes to all of us. Keep your personal tank full so you can reach in when you’re struggling, as well as reach out to others when you need to.
7. It’s okay to do things just for fun.
Anything counts. As long as you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else. Laugh long and loud at nothing much. The world doesn’t have enough joy in it.
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