One day I was shopping at a bookstore when I looked up and found myself standing next to the musical artist Bobby McFerrin who had the #1 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I smiled and said “Hey. How’s it going?”, like we were old friends. For the next three days I couldn’t get that song out of my head. (Sorry, now you probably have that song in your head.)
Be Happy. Over the years I’ve wished that on my kids. I’ve dropped them off at school and said something like “Hope you have a good day.” In other words, “I hope you are happy!”
Then I started to wonder. Is this what I really want for my kids? Is that enough?
Over the years as I have talked to parents, I’ve asked them what they believe most parents in America want for their kids. The most common response is that they “want their children to be happy.”
If you were to ask that question to parents in Japan, studies say that most parents would want their children to be successful and independent.
Over fifty years ago a similar question was asked of parents and their response was quite different. When asked what they want for their kids, they responded that they wanted their kids to be good.
It’s hard to believe that in just a few generations we have gone from wanting our children to be good to wanting our children to be happy.
Some parents often go to great lengths to make sure that their child is constantly happy. If a toy breaks, they immediately go out and buy a replacement. When they sense for a moment that their child is unhappy, they try to find something that will distract them from their unhappiness. They bribe them with ice cream or new Xbox games, hoping that somehow the happiness will last longer than it takes for the ice cream to melt.
There is a difference between the feeling of happiness and the state of happiness. The feeling of being happy is fleeting. It is conditional. When something happens that we interpret as good, we are happy. We get a promotion at work – we’re happy. There’s enough money at the end of the month to cover the bills – we’re happy. Our favorite team wins – we’re happy.
But what happens when things don’t go our way? We get rear-ended on the way to work – we’re not happy. Our child doesn’t get a part in the school play – we’re not happy. A friend cancels on us for the third time – we’re not happy. We miss a two-foot putt – we’re not happy.
The state of happiness is different than the feeling of being happy. The state of happiness is joy – and joy is a choice. It is the way we choose to live regardless of the circumstances. It is understanding that sometimes tough things happen. It is knowing that sometimes we will experience loss, hardship, suffering, and pain.
Jesus reminds us in John 16:33 that we will have hard times. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
When a parent rushes in to alleviate a child’s feeling of sadness over a broken toy or a broken heart, they are communicating to that child that there is something wrong with that feeling.
Perhaps this is the reason that college counseling offices are reporting that they are dealing with more students who are struggling with anxiety than ever before. Suddenly there is nobody there to rescue them when they are feeling lonely and sad.
Kids need to learn how to work through the pain that life has to offer. When a child doesn’t make the team, we can help them engage in their grief. Instead of trying to blame others or to distract them from their disappointment, we can help by letting them feel that pain. Let them grieve the loss. Let them know that we are there and that we are hurting with them.
Before you know it, they will be over the heartache and they will realize that the sun came up again today and new opportunities have been given to them. They will realize that they don’t always get what they want. They will often find that they have a greater capacity to deal with disappointment in the future. And most importantly, they will realize that they have a family that understands and accepts their feelings. This is when they will discover the state of happiness and joy.
At some point when my boys were in their young teens, I quit telling them to “Have a good day!” There was a more important message I wanted to communicate to them as they walked into school. Even as young adults I still say these two things that I believe will help them experience true joy and happiness.
“Be good. Remember you are loved!”
By Pete Larson
Husband to Lynn
Father of two sons
1 Corinthians 13 Parenting Team Member
Executive Director of Family Fest Ministries