John Lennon once famously said, "Life is what happens while we're making other plans.” Let’s think about that for a minute (or for the duration of this blog post at least). Are we, and our children, missing the chance to truly experience happiness while we journey towards that ultimate end goal: success? Think about it. The vast majority of our lives are spent focusing upon where we are heading, as opposed to where we currently stand. Yes, current realities are usually factored into our 10-step-plans-for-achieving-great-things, but how often do we achieve our goals and think – okay, what next?
It’s an age-old assumption that success, whether in school, work or relationships, produces happiness, joy and other spine-tinglingly good sensations within us. But the Psychological Bulletin found that in fact, following a review of 225 psychological studies, happiness doesn’t actually follow success. Rather, it is the precursor to it.
The study reveals that people who are generally happy set their sights of achieving new goals in order to reinforce the positive feelings they are already experiencing. Its results conclude that ‘happy’ people are in general confident, optimistic and energetic, and these traits tend to lend well to their success in relationships and at work, thus enabling them to continue on the trajectory of positive growth they are on as a deeply fulfilled person.
The happiness curve
Apparently, happiness is something we learn the older we get. And in no way does it correlate to our successes. According to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Centre, almost 40 percent of Americans aged 65 or older rated themselves “very happy” compared to 33 percent in the 25 to 49-year-old bracket. Happiness, it seems, seems to have a “U-curve”. We are ecstatic beyond belief about EVERYTHING as children, then, as reality sets in and the very complex chemical reactions that take place during puberty begin to affect our very impressionable brains, our satisfaction for life drops in a monumental way. This carries on for a couple of decades (ironically, throughout those very decades that are typically dedicated to career growth and achieving financial success) until we hit rock bottom in our late 40s or early 50s. And then the fun begins again!
It’s a disturbing, but interesting, revelation. One that may strike a chord with you, particularly if you’ve already experienced the demoralising descent from childhood joy to teen angst.
So according to the happiness U-curve theory, we will all experience the highs and lows of life and periods of happiness and sadness regardless of the levels of success we achieve.
What does this mean for students?
Young people, it seems, are not okay. Perhaps this is a wildly uncircumspect statement but evidence shows that a large proportion of high-school children are struggling in some way. The pressure to achieve high grades, gain ‘dream’ university placements, school competitiveness, lack of clarity about the future (economically-speaking) and a growing dependence on technology are making millennials deeply unhappy. And evidence suggests that the anxiety brought on by school pressures and technology is affecting younger and younger kids, increasing the strain on school counsellors and mental health professionals every year. Nine to 13-year-olds admit they are more stressed by academics pressures than anything else, including bullying or family crises like death or divorce.
There are several stages of mental growth that every child and teenager must go through, and the truth is, young people are miserable at regulating their emotions. So, how do we deal with the happiness quandary in schools? Do we simply sit back and hope that our young will eventually find pure happiness of their own accord later in life, as per the happiness U-curve theory? Or do we push them to attain this sense of fulfillment at an earlier age?
Should school be teaching subjects such as ‘Emotional Control’ and ‘Coping With Stress’, with advanced unit options including ‘How To Get Through Puberty While Staying True To Yourself’? In other words, subjects that teach them how to deal with emotions, relationships and life in a healthy and rational manner, rather than leaving those as lessons to be learned in the playground. Or are subjects such as Mathematics, Science and English going to better prepare them for life beyond school?
Where to from here?
A note written by Albert Einstein on a hotel notepad in 1922 recently sold for $1.56 million at an auction in Jerusalem. Its message – Einstein’s infamous theory of happiness – is one we should all take heed of.
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness,” he wrote.
Perhaps we should be encouraging the younger generations not to strive for great success (e.g. to make the 30 Under 30 list… to set their heart on gaining billionaire status in their lifetime… to become a world class doctor or entrepreneur) but rather to succeed in attaining happiness. The dangers of taking this approach, however, are obvious. Namely, it might encourage in our children apathy, idleness and self-indulgence among other negative behaviours. Then again are these not better alternatives to the vices we are encouraging by pushing our ‘success’ agenda upon younger people? The vices of avarice and greed, both associated with the nonstop pursuit of success.
It merits asking the question.