The most common response I hear when I ask people what they want more of in life is: “happiness.”
As humans, we’re biologically programmed to remember the negative experiences more than the positive ones. Which makes sense, really. Your brain’s #1 job is to keep you safe and, since the beginning of human development, the world has been filled with more things that will hurt us than things that protect us.
It’s why babies don’t usually like broccoli or spinach the first time they try it: This green stuff is bitter! Will it kill me? I’m not going to take another bite until I’m 1000% sure it’s ok to ingest.
It’s also why babies experience stranger anxiety: Who the fork is this weird person who’s sticking their face too close to mine and speaking nonsense? Can I trust them?
So, if you remember the bad feelings and experiences more than the happy ones, it’s because you’re supposed to!
Wait, a minute, Marisa. You said this blog post is about a predictor of happiness but now you’re telling me I’m wired to feel unhappy? WTF?
Stick with me….
You see, I saw these statistics in an article the other day:
• 1 in 5 adolescents in the United States has a mental illness.
• Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder.
There are more high school and college-age kids living in the US with anxiety or mental illness than there were during the Depression!
As a mother of a 12-year-old and an almost-9-year-old, this made my heart hurt. But, I’d be lying if I said that these statistics surprised me.
I remember how hard it was to be a teenager. Navigating the rough seas of Hormone Ocean aboard the SS Please Like Me heading towards Who Am I Island.
(Ok, maybe I shouldn’t be listening to Enya while I type this but Sail Away is an awesome song! 🤷♀️)
The first time I sat in the guidance counselor’s office at school, I was 11.
The first time I was saw a clinical psychologist, I was 22.
Life is hard and I know very few adults who would willing go back and be teen again.
Especially a teen nowadays. Between all the “normal” peer and academic pressures we faced back in the day, kids today also have to face cyberbullying and fear of gun violence. The over-stimulation of social media and video games has dramatically increased rates of loneliness and technology-induced attention deficit disorder (yes, that’s a real thing).
As parents and caregivers, we want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy, kind, responsible, generous, resilient, successful adults.
So, we worry about all the things:
• We worry about not being “good enough” and making mistakes that will forever mess them up.
• We worry we’re not planning enough activities to stimulate their minds and we worry we’re over-stimulating them.
• We worry we’re not spending enough time with them and we worry that we’re giving them too much attention and being over-protective.
• We worry about how to keep them safe and how to let them make their own mistakes.
• And, sometimes, we even worry that we’re worrying too much!
I saw the statistics and I wanted to know: what can I do, as a parent, to help my children so I feel like I’m doing something other than just worrying?
So, I did what most of us do now: I went down the rabbit hole of Google. And, because I really wanted to know what the research showed, I limited myself to Google Scholar.
And I found an article (a book excerpt, actually) that said that, according to longitudinal studies on child development, “one of the very best predictors for how any child turns out—in terms of happiness, social and emotional development, leadership skills, meaningful relationships, and even academic and career success—is whether they developed security from having at least one person who showed up for them.”
That’s literally all it takes to help our children: to be present for them. To show them that they matter, they are loved, that we have their backs.
When we’re honest with ourselves, when we tap into our inner wisdom, we will discover that, beneath the worry, there’s a happy, healthy, kind, responsible, generous, resilient, successful adult.
Because at least one person showed up for us.
So, when you notice your worry bubble up, here’s what I’ve learned helps:
That’s the best time to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and remember at least one time someone showed up for you.
Who was it? What did they do for you? How did it make you feel? How does it make you feel to remember that experience?
Take a few quiet minutes and think about her/him/them.
Then take another deep breath and ask yourself about a time you showed up for your children, yourself, or someone else in your life from that place of love and service.
What did that feel like? What was the response from the other person? How did it feel? How can you do more of that?
Spoiler alert: from doing this exercise, the more I thought about the people who showed up in my life, the more I realized that the things they did weren’t huge. They were small and simple actions, heart-felt and honest words.
It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference in someone else’s life. It just takes being there and being YOU.
And, it turns out that showing up for someone else makes a difference regardless of their age. Whether we’re 11, 22, or 44, we all want to know someone has our backs.
I have yours. I believe in you and I believe that you are changing lives everyday by being your unique self on this planet.