Nothing strikes fear in the heart of an Admissions person faster than the seven words “I just want him to be happy…” Is this because we don’t want people to be happy? Of course not!! It’s just that “Happy” is an emotion, not a state (and I’m using state in the Connecticut, Florida, California form of the word). We can move to a state. We can live in and be residents of a state. “Happy” is not a state. Even the happiest people you (think you) know are not happy all of the time. Happy is an emotion, and emotions are complicated, fleeting, impermanent expressions of an infinitely complex recipe of inputs, receptors, environmental factors, personal histories, etc. And to put it quite simply, no matter what program, school, therapist, support or intervention a parent is seeking, “Happy” is simply not one of the items on the menu. Therapeutic supports don’t have “Happy” in a jar, can’t dispense it, can’t create it, and can’t guarantee that enrollment will result in a child moving to the Great State of Happy. (If they are, start asking lots of questions).
Greater happiness is often a pretty nice by-product of a therapeutic intervention, but it’s not the core ingredient; in fact, with practice, intention and a little luck, it is a coincidental byproduct!
Consider, too, that setting parental expectations around a child’s happiness can set a child, and parent, up for some major disappointments (which aren’t happy). If all a parent wants for their child is that he’s happy, what happens when he’s experiencing any other of the normal and healthy range of human emotions, like scared, frustrated, bored, angry, lonely, awestruck, or embarrassed? Is this a failure on the part of the child? The parent? Either way, recognition of those struggles doesn’t lead back to being happy, but rather into a guilt and shame spiral that spins away from happy pretty quickly. Is it incumbent on the parent to always create “happy”? If so, it’s an impossible task, and fraught with danger; parents focused on “happy at all costs” will bend rules, cater to children’s every whim, blame schools or other outside forces for not doing their part in making their child happy. In doing so, parents may inadvertently teach their children that happiness is an inalienable right to be expected from others, that there is something wrong with not being happy, and that happy is something that comes from outside, not inside, themselves. Ironically, by modeling this externalization of the locus of control, parents focused on procuring and protecting “Happy” inadvertently stifle their child’s capacity to develop, integrate, and practice the core skills which lead to longer-lasting and more fulfilling happiness.
Thomas Jefferson knew that happiness is not an inalienable right. That’s why the United State’s Declaration of Independence includes the phrasing “and the pursuit of” just before inserting the “happiness” part. Happy is not ours by default. We must work for it. We must struggle for it. We must be willing to accept that there are times which are unhappy as we make steps in the pursuit of happy, and we must be willing to create our own happiness, carve it out, shape and mold it, nurture and care for it. The happiest amongst us have learned how to find happiness in the pursuit itself, foregoing altogether the need to arrive at the destination of “Happy” and instead being happy with the journey.
Shifting away from “Happy” as the primary goal does NOT mean the end of happiness. Quite the contrary. By re-evaluating what we really mean by “happy” we can learn to see that “happy” is, at best, a wonderful byproduct of much more important skills, talents, and abilities.
Focus less on “Happy” and more on “resilient.” Let go of “Happy” and work toward “self-aware.” Relinquish “Happy” in exchange for “emotionally intelligent.” Removing inauthentic, artificial, and unsustainable “Happy” relieves children of the pressures of “Happy” and opens them up the opportunity to build frustration-tolerance, grit, stamina, determination, the ability to delay immediate gratification for a greater good down the road, the capacity to give to others, and the ability to build an authentic “Happy” for themselves which is deep and rich and meaningful.
Redefining our relationship with Happiness is complex, and at times, also necessitates an intervention. Residential therapeutic programs are designed to help children build the skills to learn how to re-center their locus of control to within themselves, build resiliency, and truly take ownership of their own emotional landscape. It’s the development and internalization of those skills which often results in happiness, and not the other way around.
And don’t worry - we Admissions folks DO want your children to be happy (and you can always check out this Blog Post on Happy Students in Residential Programs, which discusses how happy most of the children actually are), it’s just that we want to make sure that children who visit the Great State of Happy do so as the natural byproduct of their own internalized successes, their own skills, and in a way which can be replicated long after their enrollment ends.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poet’s towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
- Edward Abbey, 1987
About the Author
Jake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs. He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.