Babies are born blank slates with unwavering needs and wants. They are completely helpless and must be provided for at every moment. Parents fulfill those needs almost automatically. There is no thought of withholding the objects of an infant’s needs or wants; most often, they are one and the same. Food, clothing/diapering, and shelter are obvious needs for everyone. For infants, though, love, affection, cuddling, and other simple wants are given automatically as well. These developing, innocent minds do not need to make choices yet, but they certainly already know how to be happy. Fulfillment is easy and automatic; satisfaction results, as it should.
As children start to get a bit older, they begin to develop minds of their own, as parents like to say. The actual thought, and pursuit of happiness is present and strong. Children regularly run, play, and laugh in ways that adults rarely do. How often do you see an adult just spinning around with his or her arms out and head laid back, looking up at the sky? Children also say what they want and usually at least attempt to do what is required to get it—NOW. They are the ultimate pursuers of happiness because they purposefully take action toward their pursuits, but only until the years of mind pollution set in. This does not mean that parents should never say “no” to demands for candy at the supermarket checkout or to going outside before all the vegetables are gone. Parents must teach good sense and forbearance, so quelling some untimely or unseemly demands is a good lesson. But, there comes a transition time when youthful happiness transforms to gloominess and oftentimes downright hostility.
The teen years are definitely a time of learned behavior defined by a transition to adulthood. The tragedy is that learned behavior, by definition, must be taught by others. The fact that some folks are teaching young, impressionable minds how to be unhappy is a disturbing truth. Most cultures have some recognition of this life period, and so does nature. Naturally, puberty and menstruation enter life as signals of coming adulthood. Along with these changes comes awkwardness, self-doubt, and perhaps acting out. Much of this period is fraught with stalwart attempts to be young “men” or “women” similar to their parents or some other positive or negative role models. There is certainly at least some emulation of influential adults in bridging this gap from childhood to adulthood.
Societally in America, the changes thrust upon kids occur during the middle to high school years. Culturally, there are bar mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, or other celebrations that act as artificial gateways to adulthood. Presumably, the recognition of this period in a child’s life marks a transition to self-direction. A thinking person would then presume there would be some focus on positive pursuits, perhaps even happiness. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
There is, instead, a push for kids to become little adults and start acting that way. There is a big push to succeed in school and make it like a job, to spend all free time perfecting sport or piano playing, and to do stacks of homework until bedtime. These daily activities consume the lives of these smaller grown-ups. The irony of this cultural approach is that adults who moan about the “daily grind” begin pushing the same grind on their kids long before their children even have the sense to understand what is happening. Pursuing the grind so early is certainly shaping a bitterness toward life; and the more that is piled on in a negative way, the more likely the pursuit will be toward anything but happiness. Adolescents are not small adults, but they are being morphed into that image and mindset.
There is more piled onto these young learners during their transitional years. Along with the pressures to begin a path to success comes the first major introduction to collectivism. Cliques form in school with the in-crowd versus the nerds or the greasers/burnouts, the potheads, skate-boarders, or whatever labels have been applied throughout the different eras. The labels don’t really matter here. The fact is that these cliques that form this early in life are made up of the happy and the unhappy. Just consider for a moment the behavior of the teens involved. Certain students participate in major activities, go to the parties and dances, join social or educational clubs, play sports, and so on. The others loiter around the hallways or school yard or maybe in neighborhoods, isolate themselves playing video games or in the tech world, or even roam the streets. Such others may complain about how they “will never be noticed by (or date) a cool guy,” speak of how “the prom queen ignores me,” or “I am too dumb to debate or go to the good college,” or whatever the learned alibi of the day may be. We have heard them all in our own lives; we’ve seen the television shows and movies depicting these well-established collectives, and we’ve read the novels endlessly telling stories of the awkwardness of adolescents. These people are never taught that America is about the pursuit of happiness; they are corralled into groups that foster bitterness and “only-ifs.”
The almost unbelievable fact is that adults continue this learned, and thus taught, unhappy behavior throughout their lives. It is impressed in their minds so firmly that it takes hold like an addiction. On a recent season of the reality series, Survivor, the whole show was premised on the concept of two groups, the “Davids” versus the “Goliaths,” opposing each other. The groups assumed these names, but also the actual roles for which they were labeled. These independent adults continued their “unaccepted by the cool kids” mantra as if they were still at Jefferson Middle School.
It’s astounding how this learned failure to pursue happiness can be accepted by so many people over years or even decades of life. Then, they teach to their younger peers or kids. The use of the formative years to instill ideas of groupthink, and tyranny of the outcast truly is astounding if not tragic. But in no uncertain terms, these years transform an early life defined by the pursuit of happiness into a perceived grind that not only defies such pursuits, but provides excuses and alibis to those who fail to put to use the gift that the creators of America gave us. The serious, responsible, and unhappy adults teach impressionable minds how to be equally as unhappy, serious, and responsible.
Except from America, The Happy
1 Survivor: David vs. Goliath. Directed by Jeff Probst. Figi, March 29, 2018-May 6, 2018: CBS.