I’m not entirely opposed to participatory trophies. I don’t love them, but I get it. But there are times that I think we adults are making decisions that avoid headaches for us and rob kids of a chance to grow for expedience sake. To get them in the car without hassle. In terms of their experience of life as youngsters we are certainly raising the floor but in doing so we are lowering the ceiling. Which is fine, I guess, as long as we do it knowing this is the result. I’m not worried about kids getting a sense of entitlement to a trophy, I worry they are starting to get a sense of entitlement to happiness when happiness doesn’t work that way.
I was amongst the earliest generation of kids who were handed self-esteem. This too doesn’t work this way. The tsunami that came shortly after was a flooding of positive reinforcement heaped on children that was perhaps reflective of a truth, but connected to nothing. It was positive reinforcement for breathing and being. Now it’s far better than it’s opposite and there might be a need for remediation for children raised in brutal environs. But surely us bike riding, middle class suburban kids didn’t at all need to be rewarded for being. But we were. As a result many of us had no idea of who or what we were until we took ourselves out into the world and were made aware pretty quickly that we weren’t perfect. It’s a lesson that might be better learned before embarking on adulthood.
The disappointment of real adult life, with all it’s challenges and hard work and unfairness is jarring to some and I see people using the magic of technology to broadcast how unhappy they are. To lament the state of life. They aren’t wrong. It’s hard. Where they miss the point is that it’s supposed to be. If it didn’t seem impossible and too hard to do at times it wouldn’t have any meaning. Happiness is found, achieved most of the time. Sure, it can be sprung on us and we can rent it for a time with money, but ultimately its not to be possessed. Its to be experienced. Remembered fondly. To be pursued.
Assessing one’s own ‘happiness’ in real time is a futile exercise indulged in by privileged people. I know. I’m one of them.
The reality is though that I’m never happier then when I’m working. Not at my job, though often there as well. What I mean by working is that my curiosity is piqued and I want to explore. Playing would be a more accurate way of looking at it. It may be physical, hiking a mountain in the Adirondacks or it may be a stack of books staring me down begging me to add my imagination to the half finished story the author offers requiring my brain, my imagination for it to become complete, to enter the world. It’s an idea that has congealed into an intriguing thought, transformed into a sentence that is telling me to write it down so it can have a chance at life. Too often these thoughts feel so compelling that I wrongly assume I will never lose them but I always do if I don’t write them down. Still, sometimes I don’t. I’m unhappy to have lost an idea. On the whole, though, that ability to be moved, even negatively, to care about something just because it intrigued and inspired me is something, an ability that makes me very happy.
Happiness is very often bought. I love that kind of happiness to. I just respect it’s fleeting nature. It’s here but a second and leaves little to no residue of it’s existence. The lasting type is the type that comes with effort. Effort that has risk inherent. You might find happiness and you might find disappointment. You might put down the pursuit for a time when it’s defeating you only to find renewed motivation and vigor upon jumping once more into the breech. That kind of happiness, the kind that comes from full engagement and commitment, from the excitement of the chase, that is born of curiosity or desire or inspiration, is happiness you can access and should access whenever you can. Even if the frequency of achieving it is low.
Happiness is not an entitlement. It’s not a pot of gold that once found can provide endless, unceasing joy. Happiness is a relative state of being that depends completely on the presence of a full spectrum of feelings. The founding fathers were wise in not focusing on happiness. It’s ethereal and gelatinous. What isn’t is the pursuit thereof. I have sons who are small right now and I have to say, like all parents, it hurts me to see them upset. I tolerate it. I even cause it when I must. But there happiness is incredibly important to me. It truly is. But a true sense of well being must incorporate disappointment, frustration, loneliness as well as excitement, purposefulness and connection. For my children to experience it all they should aim at happy, they should pursue it. But I hope they come to understand the nature of happiness to be more than that which is so often presented to them. True happiness requires engagement and effort and is never guaranteed. That’s why it feels so good.