Program success: Karin Wentworth-Ping saw daughter daughter Anxia’s confidence increase. Photo: James Alcock Happy ever after. We want it for ourselves, we want it for our children, and we want it now. But what if everything we know about happiness is a lie? What if the relentless pursuit of pleasure is making us miserable?
A growing number of psychologists and social researchers believe that the ”feel-good, think-positive” mindset of the modern self-help industry has backfired, creating a culture where happiness is king, and uncomfortable emotions are seen as abnormal.
And they warn that the concurrent rise of the self-esteem movement – encouraging parents to shower their children with praise – may be creating a generation of emotionally fragile narcissists.
Some therapists believe this positivity obsession is partly to blame for rising rates of binge drinking, drug use and obesity. The more that genuine contentment eludes us, the more we seek to fill the gap with manufactured highs.
”So many people now think ‘If I’m not happy, there’s something wrong with me.’ We seem to have forgotten that feelings are like the weather – changing all the time,” said Russ Harris, a British-born Australian doctor and author of The Happiness Trap. He argues popular wisdom on happiness is misleading and destined to make you miserable.
”Increasingly people are developing anxiety about their anxiety and dissatisfaction about their dissatisfaction. Painful emotions are increasingly seen as unnatural and abnormal and we refuse to accept that we can’t always get what we want.”
From Wednesday to Friday experts, including Dr Harris, will address the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Melbourne.
The ”happiness industry” has taught parents that self-esteem is the cardinal virtue for raising well-adjusted, confident children.
Some of the world’s leading happiness experts now fear that the self-esteem juggernaut will leave future generations hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with life’s disappointments.
Among the delegates will be Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, who maintains that bubble-wrapping children against unhappiness makes them less resilient and more likely to fail.
”More and more, parents are unwilling to let their children struggle. They want them to feel good at all times so they’re telling them how smart they are, they’re really showering them with what we call person praise – ‘You’re talented, you’re smart, you’re special’ – to help them feel good about themselves all the time,” Professor Dweck said.
”My research shows it makes kids worried and tells them that the name of the game is to be smart. Then, when we give them harder problems they don’t do well and they lie about their performance because their ego gets so wrapped up in all of this.”
Professor Dweck urges parents to talk to their children about their victories and their struggles. She maintains that accepting setbacks and unpleasant emotions is the key to building resilience. ”Struggle should be something that’s valued. If we focus only on happiness we’re neglecting the richness of the full emotional spectrum and we’re overlooking the fact that you couldn’t make sense of happiness if you didn’t know sadness,” she said.
New Zealand psychologist Chris Skellett’s book, When Happiness Is Not Enough, explores how a fulfilling life can be achieved only by balancing being happy in the moment, with a drive towards longer term goals.
When he speaks at the conference this week it will be from a position of tragic experience. Last month his 21-year-old son Henry died suddenly.
While processing grief, his understanding of the importance of the full range of human emotions has never been greater. ”The loss gives you access to a wonderful array of very real human experiences, especially the connection between people,” Mr Skellett said.
”Sadness is tinged with an incredibly profound depth of appreciation of life. Now, I’m much more connected to the little things. I’m much more profoundly moved by music. A walk in the evening just seems like a gift.”
Happiness and Its Causes will be at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre from Wednesday to Friday.
Resilience the trump card to play in life
Karin Wentworth-Ping’s daughter Anxia, 10, had always been a reserved child. ”My daughter has always been a little introverted, quieter and more reserved than many other children,” Ms Wentworth-Ping said.
She sent Anxia to a five-week resilience-building program for eight- to 12-year-olds. Through the Connect-3 workshop, run by the Resilience Centre, she saw saw Anxia’s confidence improve. ”She would have said, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and she’s started saying, ‘I can do this, I’ll give it a go,’ and when it succeeded she’d give it a go again … and then give it a go again.”
The program is based on psychologist Lyn Worsley’s ”resilience doughnut” model, which explores the beliefs participants need to face the world, and the external factors in life that enhance those beliefs.
Ms Wentworth-Ping thinks the ”I want my child to be happy” mentality is unrealistic. ”I would say now that I want my daughter to have good character, a belief in herself, resilience, and the ability to cope with and manage difficult emotions and situations.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.