Updated: May 13, 2022
A few years ago my son who was about 5 years old said to me one summer, “mom, I feel sad”. This happened day after day. I started asking questions, “Why are you sad?” he didn’t know. “What can I do to make you happy?” he didn’t know. Finally, I asked him, “When did you feel happy last?” Eureka! The question I needed to ask. He started naming all the days we had done fun things that summer, such as going to an amusement park and to the zoo. I realized my poor son would never be happy if he gauged happiness at the same level as excitement. A colleague of mine who specializes in addiction said once, “everyday can’t be Christmas” when conducting a Relapse Prevention group. My son wanted every day to be Christmas, who doesn’t!?
This made me think. What is happiness? I believe it is a simple equation.
Contentment + Growth (Gratitude²) = Happiness
I can see why some people may be confused about what happiness is, especially children. What if children are taught at an early age that happiness is contentment, growth and gratitude verses the belief that happiness is the feeling of excitement? That we can reach higher levels of happiness with hard work, responsibility, kindness, etc., but in the day-to-day experience, contentment is the goal, with fleeting moments of elation.
As a mental health professional, it makes me wonder if this misinterpretation of happiness is ubiquitous. Does it have a hand in the prevalence of depression in the US? Would depression be less prevalent in the United States if our need for instant gratification were put in check? Could this, in part, contribute to the epidemic of addiction? Would people be less likely to become addicted if they had been educated on subtle happiness instead of seeking expecting every day to be like a high?
These points have limitations of course, but I have taken certain precautions with my children, just in case. Most nights we discuss at dinner three things we liked about our day. The simple pleasures that give us happiness, such as, “I think I got a good grade on my test today”. We each get a chance to share our happiness with the other family members and we celebrate each other’s little, tiny triumphs. We then say one thing we like about the other people at the table that day. It gives us a chance to appreciate each other’s strengths. I also point out moments when nothing at all is happening in the household. We are just listening to music, or playing a game or watching TV and I will stop everything to say, “hey you guys, this is happiness”.
My younger son had been struggling with the meaning of happiness. He has benefited the most from these daily reminders. In toddlerhood he was naturally pessimistic, but over the years he has been informed when happiness had snuck up on us. Now, he is now naturally bubbling with happiness. Over the years of reminders he has become positive and rarely complains. I wonder how he would be different if we hadn’t helped him define happiness as contentment.
My husband found a quote recently that stated, “It takes as much effort to be happy as it does to be miserable.” (I could not find the author to credit him/her, but he/she deserves the credit). I am teaching my children that happiness does take effort, it does not come naturally. You have to notice the little things, show appreciation, be responsible, be kind, be honest, have integrity and happiness comes to you. You cannot be happy without constant effort at being the best you possible. Hopefully, the message is getting through, because the effort we put into misery is far worse than the effort to maintain happiness.
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Jennifer Hoskins-Tomko, LCSW is a Psychotherapist who has been practicing for over 12 years. She has a strong background in trauma work, depression, anxiety, relapse prevention, etc. She is also the business owner of a concierge private practice in Jupiter, Florida. Jennifer and her team provide therapeutic services to a variety of clients of ages 14 and over. Services they provide are individual, couple, family and group therapy.
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