There are particular times each year when certain occasions call for celebrations centered around spreading joy by giving gifts to others. Christmas and birthdays, in particular, are instances when gifts are given and parents pamper their children with the hottest toys and newest electronics. While there isn’t any debating the fact that these are worthy times to celebrate, nor any questioning the powerful feelings that gifts can create, it is these very activities that illuminate society’s most profound parenting mistake.
You can be assured that giving gifts in and of itself isn’t the worst mistake made by parents, rather it’s that fathers and mothers, oftentimes unknowingly, don’t educate their children about where true happiness is found or give them tools to take care of themselves mentally and emotionally.
If you are a parent, it’s all but certain that you know how kids quickly lose interest in newly acquired gifts, and instead, shift their focus to acquiring newer and better things. Unfortunately, because external objects, like the presents they receive, are unable to provide complete satisfaction, much of today’s youth will enter adulthood searching for fulfillment in all the wrong places. As adults, the individuals who are conditioned in their youth to believe that happiness is found by obtaining material possessions will undoubtedly remain unable to get the most out of life.
If we’re going to collectively fix society’s most profound parenting mistake, and set our children on a path toward lifelong happiness, it is certain that we will have to begin educating them as to where they can find feelings of joy, similar to the ones that are temporarily conjured up inside when receiving a present, only on a more permanent basis.
Linking Happiness to Impermanent Externals:
Around Christmas time each year, there are particularly popular toys that draw the attention of children who are desperate to call them their own. For these children’s parents, who genuinely want to make their kids as happy as they can be, this means standing in long lines at retail stores or overpaying exponentially for the season’s hottest items. In 1988 it was Nintendo, in 1996 it was Tickle Me Elmo, and just this past year it was Cozmo, the entertaining robot who develops his own personality. While these three toys, and all other gifts, are capable of providing children with happiness, it is only in the form of temporary and impermanent joy.
The toys themselves break down and get replaced by newer and better things, the joyous feelings and interests of the recipients’ unquestionably change, and they return to the exact same place they started: Searching for fulfillment by acquiring material possessions.
Unfortunately, nearly every individual who grows up in the Western world will develop a faulty cognitive association that links happiness to impermanent externals. Because the gifts we receive give us heightened feelings of joy for a few weeks, months, or even a year, we assume that there is something out there that can make us wholly fulfilled. The truth is, however, that the impermanent nature of reality makes it impossible to find happiness this way. If we could find complete life satisfaction from externals, then Nintendo, Tickle Me Elmo, and Cozmo would be all that we need.
The Role of Advertisement & Pop Culture:
Parents alone aren’t entirely to blame for the misperception, of thinking happiness is found externally, that many adolescents take into adulthood. In fact, it is quite easy to see how advertisement and pop culture play a role in conditioning children to unknowingly link happiness to impermanent external objects. In the instance of advertisement, it is the very goal of those creating television, print, and radio ads to entice consumers into thinking that their products will supply them with the happiness and fulfillment they seek. Unfortunately, as we have already discussed, this can’t be achieved because of the impermanent nature of reality that we are all bound to.
Pop culture also plays a role in adding to the happiness misperception, and does so in a variety of ways. While the fairytale movies that have made Disney into one of the most successful companies in the world succeed at stoking children’s imaginations, many of these films also leave kids blindly expecting a prince or princess to come along and sweep them off their feet. Even as young adults, many still believe that the special someone will one day rescue them from the dissatisfaction they feel. The truth is, however, that there isn’t a happily ever after for any of us, because we are all subjected to the irreversible truths of suffering and ultimately death.
Another way that pop culture adds to our children’s most limiting misperceptions comes in the form of comparative evaluations. After being exposed to the glitz and glamour of music, film, and sports, many adolescents begin aspiring to be just like their favorite movie star, music icon, or sports hero. When they assume that their celebrity role models are unquestionably happy because of their social status, material wealth, and beautiful spouses, they again set themselves up for massive disappointment because these things similarly can’t satisfy them. Furthermore, rarely do young people ever come to realize that many of these celebrities are actually stuck in the exact same position of looking for fulfillment in all the wrong places.
Again it is important to point out that while advertisement and pop culture do add to the faulty assumption that happiness is found outside, just like gifts, they are not entirely bad in and of themselves. There are unquestionably positives that stem from these things, most notably inspiration and creativity. Just as in the instance of giving gifts, parents don’t need to completely cut their kids off from these things, rather educate them on the fact that true happiness can’t be found this way.
The Outcomes of Our Greatest Parenting Mistake:
Health and well-being statistics within the United States paint a gloomy picture of society’s collective levels of life-satisfaction. While living under the assumption that happiness is found outside of one’s self can’t be entirely to blame for a wide variety of troubling numbers, it can certainly be given part attribution. Even for those who don’t fall into any of the problematic statistical categories, many remain unable to find happiness due to a nagging desire to obtain more and an unrealistic belief that they can get to a place where they experience only the positive aspects of life. Let’s look at some of the well-being statistics that are unquestionably affected by the misperception of where happiness is found:
Life Satisfaction: According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Harris Pool in 2013, only one in three Americans (33%) consider themselves to be very happy with their lives, and much of the dissatisfaction comes from citizens searching for happiness outside of themselves. Additionally, it is certain that the majority of the 66% of citizens who aren’t fulfilled lack the basic skills to care for themselves mentally and emotionally.
Depression: It is estimated that one out of every ten Americans will suffer from depression at some point in their lives and that in the year 2015 around 16 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode. Depression, at least to some extent, can be attributed to the inability of individuals to manage their mental and emotional states, the comparative evaluations they judge themselves with, and the conditioned belief that happiness is found outside of one’s self.
Anxiety: In the United States, anxiety is the most common mental health illness, and around 40 million American adults, or 18% of the population, suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder. While there are a variety of different ways anxiety affects people, at least some of the statistics stem from the low levels of self-esteem that arise when individuals compare themselves to others who possess much greater material wealth and social status.
Divorce: You may be well aware of the fact that divorce rates in the United States are currently at an all-time high, as nearly 50% of couples who get married are ending their relationship in divorce, and at least a portion of these statistics are caused by individuals thinking that marriage is the way to find lasting happiness. Unfortunately, for those who put their happiness in the hands of another, the real-world reality of marriage doesn’t provide them with what they want.
Addiction: Struggles with addiction similarly affect the American population in a profound way. In 2014, it was estimated that 21.5 million American adults aged 12 and older suffered from some sort of substance abuse issue, much of which is caused by an inability to find happiness with what sober life has to offer. Many individuals reach for alcohol or drugs because they are unhappy with not only their external life circumstances but also who they are on the inside.
Just to reiterate, not all of these statistics can be attributed to society’s most profound parenting mistake of not educating our children as to how they can find true happiness, but at least a portion of the numbers can be attributed to it. To change these numbers and Americans’ collective levels of life satisfaction, it is certain that we will have to begin teaching our children how to truly create sustainable levels of happiness.
True Happiness Can Only Be Found Internally:
Perhaps there is no better living example of an individual who wholly understands the universal truth that happiness is an internally created state than that of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Throughout his lifetime, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists has not only lived a modest and celibate life but has also seen his home country overtaken by the Chinese army.
Since China initially invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama has been forced to live outside of his home country in exile and witnessed upwards of 1 million Tibetans, the people he leads, die at the hands of the Chinese. Instead of holding on to feelings of bitterness and resentment, however, the Dalai Lama contently offers compassion to his oppressors.
How is it that a man who hasn’t lived what would be thought of as a ‘good life’ in the eyes of many Westerners still be considered one of the happiest people in the world? It is certain that the reason the Dalai Lama lives with an almost unceasing smile and cheery mood is that he has learned that happiness is an internally created state that needs to be constantly worked towards. Through his lifelong endeavors of spiritual practices, he has developed a keen understanding of the impermanent nature of reality while also developing joy-inducing qualities such as gratitude, acceptance, and compassion. Additionally, His Holiness has developed the mindful awareness needed to monitor and alter his mental and emotional states. He so adequately puts it:
Inner peace is the key: if you have inner peace, the external problems do not affect your deep sense of peace and tranquility. Without this inner peace, no matter how comfortable your life is materially, you may still be worried, disturbed, or unhappy because of circumstances.”
Giving Our Children the Tools for True Happiness:
In order to reverse the devastating outcomes of our most profound parenting mistake, there are a number of simple and logical steps we can take. Regardless of your child or children’s ages, you have the ability to make a massive difference in their future by giving them the tools for lifelong happiness. Before looking at the practical ways we can enhance our children’s long-term happiness perspectives, it’s important to point out that while many of the strategies we will discuss here have origins in the great Eastern spiritual religions, they can be taught in a way that doesn’t conflict with your religious beliefs. In fact, the Buddha himself taught people from differing faiths in a completely secular way. Now, here are five steps you can take to overcome the most profound parenting mistake:
Educate Yourself First:
To educate your children on the foundational aspects of happiness, it will be vitally important to first educate yourself. This may mean delving into spiritual literature, where you will learn about the impermanent nature of reality, the limited amounts of joy we obtain from externals, and the multitude of benefits individuals receive from meditation practice. Additionally, this will mean that you strive to develop the personal qualities that produce true happiness within yourself and start practicing meditation regularly, ultimately with the goal of being the right kind of role model for your children. If you are serious about setting your children up for lifelong happiness, the process will have to start with yourself.
Regularly Discuss Where True Happiness is Found:
There has been a great deal of research looking into how individuals are able to create consistent levels of joy in their lives, and it will be important for you to discuss the most important strategies with your children as they get older. While much of society falsely assumes that happiness is found in material possessions, financial wealth, and social status, science tells us that it results when we individuals nurture positive and compassionate relationships with others, spend money on experiences rather than things, and gratefully appreciate their life circumstances without craving for more. If you can get this simple message through to your children, you will be greatly contributing to their long-term well-being.
Help Them Cultivate the Qualities Associated with Happiness:
Just as the Dalai Lama shows, there are a number of personal qualities that are directly related to the subjective well-being of individuals. By continuously working with your children to develop gratitude, compassion, understanding, a positive mindset, and self-acceptance, they will be on their way to living with heightened levels of joy. To facilitate the process, you will need to make it a point to regularly discuss these topics in a way that naturally guides them to develop these characteristics within themselves. One exercise that can be helpful is to pose particular questions at dinner time centered around the happiness-inducing qualities. To help them develop a positive perspective, for example, you may want to ask questions such as ‘What was the best thing that happened to you today?’ and ‘What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?’ whenever you sit down at the dinner table.
Give Them the Greatest Gift of All, Meditation:
Over the past decade in scientific research communities, there has been an ever-expanding emphasis on studying the effects of meditation. It hasn’t come with much surprise for Buddhists and Hindus to learn that the world of science has uncovered a seemingly endless number of physical, emotional, and mental benefits that stem from the practice. As research has almost unanimously given meditation the green light, schools across the country have begun implementing meditation and mindfulness training into their educational agendas. The celebrated Buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche tells us,
The gift to learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this lifetime.”
And by implementing a regular meditation practice at home, you’ll be giving your children the best gift of all: An increased ability to take care of themselves mentally and emotionally.
Spoil Them with Experiences & Opportunities for Connection:
Instead of spending your hard-earned money on toys, electronics, and other impermanent material things, put it to good use and spoil your children with experiences and opportunities to connect with others. Because it is now widely assumed that relationships and experiences bring us greater levels of happiness than inanimate objects, you’ll be doing your children a great service by pushing them down this path at a young age. Furthermore, by spoiling your children in this way, you’ll be able to cultivate your own relationships with them in important ways.
It should now be clear to see that society’s most profound parenting mistake is not properly educating our children on how to create meaning and happiness in their own lives. If, as individual parents, we commit ourselves to teach our kids the truth about happiness, and the ways to take care of themselves mentally and emotionally, we will be able to collectively impact the world in the most profound way.