In the 1950s, a group of psychologists began promulgating ideas related to the pursuit of happiness and flourishing. Psychology had long been focused on what could go wrong instead of what could go right. As the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, would observe in the first sentence of his 2002 book, “Authentic Happiness”: “For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only — mental illness.”
For millennia, varied traditions have spoken of the pursuit of happiness. The Israelites believed that happiness came through following the commands and rules put forth by Yahweh. The Greeks sought contentment in logic and analysis. Jesus and His message is the source of joy for Christians. In Islam, happiness comes from a “contented heart” found in the remembrance and pleasure of God himself. Many Westerners seek out hedonistic practices, believing that pleasure itself is the source of happiness.
Seeking happiness is as ubiquitous as water and soil, yet the methods for achieving it often seem varied and contrary. Any pursuit of the good life must ask, “Just what happiness are we seeking?” Because the term “happiness” has great latitude, any discussion must first define just what this word means. Mr. Seligman proposes that there are three major routes to happiness: pleasure and positive emotion (the pleasant life), engagement (the engaged life) and meaning (the meaningful life). How we choose to seek out happiness may differ, but most people’s practices and pursuits lie in at least one of these domains. Further research by Mr. Seligman and colleagues found that people who reported being most satisfied with their life were those who sought out experiences through all three routes, with a heavier emphasis towards the engaged and meaningful life.
As parents, child-rearing brings many uncertainties. I want our kids to be happy. In concordance with Mr. Seligman, we hope that it comes through pleasurable, engaged and meaningful pathways. But if we become so primarily focused on making our kids happy, there is a good chance that they will not only lose out on “authentic happiness,” but on much more as well.
For starters, my wife and I want our kids to have self-control, not the kind that obsesses over tiny details in a way that removes joy, but an internal regulation needed to guide them through many difficult circumstances. It is the kind that as a psychologist I know can influence outcomes in almost every important aspect of their adult life.
We want our kids to be kind, empathetic and grateful, not just because it makes them more pleasant to be around, but also because the rule of reciprocity (i.e., “The way we treat others is often the way they will treat us”) will be in their favor. Relationships provide great meaning and joy even in struggle, and I don’t want selfishness and bitterness to leave them alone.
We want our kids to be successful, not in the conventional “American dream” sense, but in a truer way. We do not want them to be poor (unless they choose), but we do not desire wealth for them that will lead to greater misery. We just want them to persevere, and find contentment in their callings and make an impact wherever they go.
We want our kids to seek out beauty and truth in their purest forms, and not settle for a second-rate product. We want them to be healthy, not for vanity’s sake, but because the pursuit of health holds many opportunities yet unrevealed. We want them to not be guided by fear or conceit, but acknowledge when they have done wrong, and find contentment when they have done right. We want more for them than this. But we begin here.
I think we speak for most parents when we profess these desires for our kids. Sometimes our surface goals may appear different. But I firmly believe our blood runs in the same direction. If so, it intrigues me that much of what we want for our kids resonates across peoples and cultures and lands of the world. What we want is virtue.
Regardless of race, creed, practice or experience, people consistently report that virtue remains virtue. Six universal virtues exist. They are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Within these 6 virtues are 24 character strengths, also endorsed across the world. For example, courage is composed of authenticity, bravery, persistence and zest, while temperance is composed of forgiveness, modesty and prudence. Available to all, exclusive to none, these virtues and strengths run like a river through our world, and into another.
Again, we must ask: “Just what happiness are we seeking for us and our youth, and are we seeking it for now, later, and/or eternity?”
If we could find pleasure, engagement and meaning through the pursuit of universal virtue, would this further guide us towards a particular pathway? Sure, it would be hard work at times. Still, it would make this pursuit of happiness much less mystifying. It would not mean we would give up our blisses, as long as they didn’t contradict our virtues. But in being just, we could feel pleasure in making the right decision, engage with people in a gratifying way and find meaning that our actions were the better ways, now and later. In being courageous, I could experience joy through challenging endeavors, meet others in their struggles and do something that really matters for those I love. Through virtue, maybe we all could find happiness — in mind, body, heart and soul. Maybe we could. We can. We have.
One more thing. Like three out of four Americans, I do think that heaven and hell exist. As my brother once matter-of-factly said, “If it didn’t, what would be the motivation for doing good?”
So if heaven exists, and if our actions and our relationship with God dictate whether we and our kids will end up there, then I want one more thing for my children. I want them to be holy.
• James Schroeder, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana.