We often hear parents say—or even say ourselves—that all we want is for our kids to be happy. But over the past several years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with our focus on happiness. Could our emphasis on raising happy kids actually be making our kids—and ourselves—less happy?
Experts say yes. Research published in the journal Emotion found that focusing too much on happiness can make people more likely to obsess over failures and negative emotions, which ends up creating more stress in the long run.
“Happiness is a good thing, but setting it up as something to be achieved tends to fail,” co-author Brock Bastian of the study and a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, tells TIME. “Our work shows that it changes how people respond to their negative emotions and experiences, leading them to feel worse about these and to ruminate on them more.”
I understand the quest for happiness. We want the best for our children and that often looks like minimizing discomfort. But it’s not our job as parents to be pave a clear path for our kids; it’s our job to prepare them for the path ahead. And, as much as we wish this weren’t the case, the path ahead will include disappointment, setbacks, and unhappiness. That is just a part of life.
“Many changes can trigger unhappiness in childhood, including hormones, moving, new siblings, friendship dynamics—it is absolutely expected to struggle at some point in our childhood,” Marcella Kelson, a maternal wellness and parenting expert, tells Motherly. “So it is important to adjust our expectations of our children as parents.”
Happiness isn’t about the absence of sadness; happiness is about accepting that the human experience includes a wide range of emotions and all are valid.
Instead of focusing on happiness, I try to focus on helping my kids navigate uncomfortable feelings, like sadness, regret, and disappointment. One of my children struggles with Sunday Scaries and Monday Morning Melancholy. Some days he is downright despondent. We’ve tried lots of different tactics for helping him cope, but the thing that seems to have worked the best is to simply acknowledge these feelings of unhappiness. We talk about how he’s felt this way before and made it through. We talk about how he will feel this way again so he is prepared. And we find one thing to be grateful for or look forward to so he learns that joy and gratitude can co-exist with fear and sadness.
Happiness isn’t about the absence of unhappiness; happiness is about accepting that the human experience includes a wide range of emotions and all are valid. True happiness means cutting ourselves some slack when we feeling down, and give others the space to feeling a little blegh too. Of course, if you notice that your child suffers from anxiety or depression, action should be taken. But aside from clinical and diagnosable conditions, mental and emotional wellness does not mean we need to be happy all the time.
By focusing more on joy, we can feel all the feelings—happy, sad, excited, angry, anxious, eager, content—and accept them.
“When people place a great deal of pressure on themselves to feel happy, or think that others around them do, they are more likely to see their negative emotions and experiences as signals of failure,” Bastian says. “This will only drive more unhappiness.”
Experts say this underscores the importance of acknowledging and accepting that feeling sad, angry or unhappy is not only okay, but it is healthy. True happiness means feeling unhappy sometimes—and being cool with that.
“The last thing that we would want is to deny or reject our child’s right to feel a variety of emotions,” Kelson says. “Resilience, which is borne out of challenges and diversity, is crucial for true happiness. As long as we are appropriate, actively listening, emotionally available, tolerant of their varied emotions and open minded, our children will feel loved.”
Instead of focusing on happiness, I try emphasize joy—both for myself and my children. (Key word is try.) As a highly sensitive person, I feel a wide range of emotions on any given day. Sometimes within the same hour. Happiness—like all emotions—is fleeting. It is impossible to feel happy all the time. What is possible, however, is to feel joy. By focusing more on joy, we can feel all the feelings—happy, sad, excited, angry, anxious, eager, content—and accept them. Because there is a baseline of contentment and satisfaction.
Whenever my kids feel unhappy, my instinct is still to rush in, to remove the negative emotions, to make things better. But what I’ve realized—what I’m still realizing—is that sometimes making things better means letting things just be by holding space for their discomfort and unhappiness. In doing this, I hope that they know I will be there for them through it all—the good and the bad.