The Happiness Achievement Paradox

Ask any parent what they want for their kids and you are likely to hear them say they just want them to be happy. Then, the more talkative among us might list a litany of other objectives and traits we would like to see in our progeny including: successful, kind, independent, community oriented, and healthy. When pressed by a Harvard researcher with the question, “What do your parents want for you?” young people validate our first assumption about their parents’ wishes; they will say their parents want them to be “happy,” but they add something else – they believe we want “achievement.”

Achievement might not be the word we choose to speak as a goal when we tell our children what we want for them during a philosophical discussion over a campfire, but it is clearly communicated through the ten thousand interactions each year before and after school and on Sunday nights. Scrutinizing report cards, checking in on homework, pushing course choices that will be most challenging – the frequency and immediacy of these actions may speak louder than the occasional campfire talk. It is these daily actions that clearly communicate our will.

Harvard researchers are concerned about this.

The spate of teen suicides in recent years, particularly in affluent suburban communities, may be a symptom of a larger cultural problem. A 2014 study by a group of Harvard researchers found that the vast majority of our children value their own happiness and achievement above empathy for others. These same youth also seem to be willing to get to the achievement ends by any means necessary. Nearly three quarters of them admit to some form of cheating in school. According to ETS, this number has risen dramatically in the last half century.

There is an irony here. According to the same Harvard professors that delivered us the bad news about our children’s selfishness, our parental focus on achievement does not seem to move the needle. You can stress out about your children’s grades if you want, but it apparently does not have much impact, and may even have an adverse effect on the lifelong happiness quotient.

The solution to this collapse of values is simple, of course, more camping and less homework.

Image Credit: Flickr, Campfire by Jelle, CC2.0

About Jack West

Writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

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