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The Pursuit of Anything But Happiness

June 06, 2005|Lisa Grunwald | Lisa Grunwald is the author of "Whatever Makes You Happy," a novel published this month by Random House.

This is a simple plea. It is addressed to the hordes of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and commencement speakers offering their wishes to the myriad classes of '05: Don't, please don't, wish them happiness. You can do better than that.

Wish them goodness. Wish them energy. Wish them humor, brains, diligence, discipline. Wish them love, if you like, and even luck. But happiness isn't enough.

When my children were little, I naturally put in my share of sandbox hours, and I can still remember an afternoon when an argument about departure time broke out between a father and his 3- or 4-year-old son. The rising volume of the back-and-forth culminated in an accusatory crescendo as the boy, in a truly shocked tone of voice, wailed, "But ... I'm ... not ... happy!"

The right answer: And your point is ... ?

The wrong answer: Any words, gestures or purchases that add up to: Let me fix it.

Which occurs more often? The latter, of course. "I just want him to be happy" has become the mantra of modern parenting, and a hugely regrettable one. Google "daughter" and "just want her to be" and you get 681 hits; Google "daughter" and "just want her to be happy" and you get 664. Happiness has even developed politically correct overtones as a life goal; somehow it has become a more acceptable answer to the question "What do you want your children to be when they grow up?" than the crass "successful" or the confining "a doctor."

Americans can always point to the Declaration of Independence when justifying (or rationalizing) our peculiar pursuits of happiness. But even if Thomas Jefferson codified the notion of happiness, it cannot have been for the purpose of giving Freddie another 10 minutes to play. When our Puritan fathers and mothers stepped off the boat, true happiness was more of a spiritual commodity -- often associated with the afterlife -- and too much overt glee in this earthly existence was entirely suspect: proof of pride, or haughtiness, or indifference to God's plan. In the 19th century, the first board game in America -- called "Mansion of Happiness" -- led players along a winding path with stops at places like Audacity, Idleness, Cruelty and the Whipping Post. The goal -- the Mansion of Happiness -- required overcoming such obstacles. ("Be virtuous then and forward press/To gain the Seat of Happiness," the instructions explained.)

Even 100 years ago, if parents were asked, "What do you hope your children will be when they grow up?" the most honest answer would likely have been "alive." At a time in which nearly a third of all U.S. deaths were among children under the age of 5, happiness was a luxury.

A few little things -- penicillin, the Industrial Revolution, rationalism and the advent of advertising -- altered all this. The idea of happiness changed from something that was largely spiritual to something that was largely material, so that in the 20th century it became the persistent baseline of the American tune. "Is your skin really happy?" asked a 1919 ad. Happiness became the name of a toothpaste, a hair dye, a bicycle seat. Today, you can buy Clinique Happy perfume, Jonathan Adler Happy Home products and see the word "happiness" engraved in place of the "Hershey" in chocolate bar ads.

It is slightly ironic that the boomer generation -- famously raised with self-awareness often indistinguishable from selfindulgence -- has evolved an approach to child-rearing that is so selfless and child-centric as to be somewhat terrifying. But I believe that it's all about us, anyway, and that what's really behind the "I just want him to be happy" refrain is the mistaken assumption that if we are not happy, it's because errors were made in our childhood that we shouldn't repeat.

We all have our scars and critical moments, our turning points and betrayals -- the worms we spent all that time and money digging up from the gardens of childhood. And so we read: "The Secret of Happy Children," "Raising Happy Children," "How to be the Parents of Happy and Obedient Children." We decide we will not let our child cry at night. We will not call her artwork anything less than genius. Nor in any way, at any time, will we fail to understand.

So what, instead, should we wish for our children? In a cynical age, beset by fears and losses, I'd rather wish my children the strength to conquer sadness than a guarantee of happiness. As Wendy Mogel writes in her non-how-to book, "The Blessings of Skinned Knee": "When horticulturists want to prepare hothouse plants for replanting outdoors, they subject them to stress to strengthen them."

I'd wish them some of that stress. I'd certainly wish them humor because it's as sustaining as air. And I'd wish them -- perhaps above all else -- the desire to think about other people's happiness before their own.

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