The Pursuit of Happiness

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“Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I am not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness.”

–Brene Brown in Daring Greatly

“I just want them to be happy.”

I was never counting, but if I had been, then I am sure that by now, I would have lost count of how many times I hear parents say this about their children. The statement drives me crazy. I get it, I am a parent as well. I don’t do well with tears, especially those of my two-year-old daughter. As she enters the “terrible twos”, I know I have some challenges ahead. It is tempting to give in to her every want, like eating a cupcake for dinner, just so I do not have to endure the emotional outburst to follow. (I predict these outbursts may reappear in her teenage years as I fend off boys.)

However, as hard as it is to see our children struggle, it is just as enticing to see them smiling and laughing. In fact, seeing our kids happy and successful can actually be addicting.

“Just the thought that your child can outrun a particular person, win the trophy, nail that Chopin etude at the recital, gets your dopamine neurons firing. Thoughts of our children achieving extrinsic goals evoke in us more or less the same reaction that Pavlov’s bell did in his dogs, a physiological response agitating us to ratify a powerful urge.”

–Jim Loehr in The Only Way to Win

Do I want my children to be happy and successful? Of course. And giving my daughter what she wants in that moment will indeed make her more tolerable and “happy”. But I also know that, as a parent, I have to start preparing myself to support my children in the struggle, instead of stepping in to save them. I know I have to come to grips with the fact my daughter will sometimes be “unhappy”, and that’s okay.

Achieving anything meaningful in life requires overcoming adversity, facing your fears, and serving something bigger than yourself.

The Happiness & Success Paradox

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you, precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

–Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl, if you haven’t heard of him, is a holocaust survivor who spent four years at the deadliest concentration camp during the second World War. Before and after his experiences in a concentration camp, even after losing his wife, unborn child, and parents, Frankl served as a psychiatrist who wasn’t focused on rehashing people’s pasts or problems, but instead, was focused on helping them find answers, solutions, and meaning in their lives. When asked what the meaning of his life was, he said, “To help others find meaning in their lives.”

Happiness and success in life is only realized when we are focused on serving others, not ourselves. Philosophical thinking, psychological research, and even our own life experiences prove this paradox to be true.

“A prevalent characteristic of happiness talk is a strong degree of selfishness. Happiness is all about me. How I feel. Another predominant characteristic of happiness is that it is easy.” –Joshua Medcalf & Jamie Gilbert in Burn Your Goals

So, instead of focusing on raising happy and successful children, we should work to raise children of high character, selflessness, and gratitude.

Using Sport to Build Mental Toughness

“Real mental toughness is the ability to acknowledge your feelings, acknowledge your doubts, and acknowledge your circumstances, without letting them deter you from doing what is most important and beneficial. It’s the ability to live according to principles, regardless of your circumstances.”

–Jamie Gilbert in The Principle Circle

I love Jamie’s definition of mental toughness. I not only hope for that mindset in my children, and the players and coaches that I work with, but I work to develop that character in myself as well.

We do not know every challenge the road of life will bring our kids, and even if we did, we couldn’t save them from the struggle. We can only do our best to prepare them for the road ahead. I aspire to develop the character in my children to be able to shift their focus from the uncontrollable to the controllable, and then act in accordance to their values.

If we are intentional about it, then sports can provide a training ground to build character and mental toughness. If we are not intentional about it, then sports will end up “using” people, creating lazy, entitled individuals, and developing vice more than virtue.

Call to Action

Great leadership and parenting don’t remove painful experiences, but they do help support our children on their journeys. We are not responsible for their happiness. The most motivating thing we can do is to believe that THEY can handle the challenge.

Teenagers need to know some hard truths:

“Life is difficult

You are not in control

You are not that important

You are going to die

And your life is not about you.”

–Tim Elmore

Help them find purpose, not pleasure. Because it is within their purpose that they will find happiness.

-J.P. Nerbun