Happiness vs. Success

One of the greatest discoveries I made as a new mother was the feeling of connection with every woman who was now or had ever been a mother.  I went from being a hard-charging, career-minded employee to a woman falling hard and fast for her tiny baby.  After spending years in the male-dominated worlds of oil and finance, where I viewed my femininity as an unfortunate circumstance of birth and a hindrance to advancement, motherhood abruptly softened me and narrowed my focus onto a newly-minted human being who was totally dependent on me.  For the first time, my eyes were opened to the power and glory of being a woman.  Not only did I become aware of my physical power to carry, nurture and feed a baby from fertilized egg to the middle of her first year, I found my capacity to love was enormous.  Where my professional work had often felt abstract and meaningless despite good marks and salary increases, this new job of motherhood was real.  Real like nothing I had ever experienced.  I felt needed, totally and completely.  It bestowed a view of each and every mother I came across, whether it was my own mother or a stranger on the street, as another human whose heart had been stretched out of her body to take the form of a child.  It brought me a deep understanding of each woman’s love for her children, her dreams for them, her desire to make everything perfect for them and her despair when she realized that wasn’t always going to be possible.

I knew that I now shared something real with these women that was much stronger than age, skin color or economics.  It was hope for our children to grow up as happy and successful human beings.  There was so much we communicated, even when no words were exchanged between us.  We knew that we shared an innate drive to preserve and progress the species, a bond that felt as wide as the world and as deep as history, yet intimate and personal at the same time.

We want the best for our children and are willing to go to extreme ends to see that they get it.  So what is the best and how do we secure that?  I mentioned the words happy and successful above and those are generally the two most common words mothers will say they want for their children.  Of course, the words have different meanings for different people, but I find that our society generally thinks of wanting success first so that happiness will result.  Success may be tops on our list because it’s easier to measure.  We can set goals for success and then shoot for them.  Moms push to ensure that kids complete assignments, get good grades, score well on tests and get into the “right” school.  The common belief is that a lot of hard work is a requirement for success, which is essential for happiness.  But is that really true?

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, (See his TED talk here) posits that we have long viewed happiness as a result of success in the same flawed way that we once believed the sun rotated around the earth:

For untold generations, we have been led to believe that happiness orbited around success.  That if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy.  Success was thought to be the fixed point of the work universe, with happiness revolving around it.  Now, thanks to the breakthroughs in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, we are learning that the opposite is true.  When we are happy–when our mindset and mood are positive–we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful.  Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.

If you had to choose between success and happiness for your child, which would you choose?  I’d love to say that I was smart enough to always choose happiness, but like many mothers I’ve been lured by the siren song of success many times.  When my oldest was applying to college I scrambled to translate our unschooling philosophy into something a traditional university could grasp, a process that about did me in (just ask my closest friend who acted as my therapist through those months — I think I compressed fifteen years of the anxiety that I avoided during the unschooling years into nine months of college application madness).  Not saying that my efforts to pull together her transcript were for naught, but it was her own musical ability and her love of music that shone brightest.  She nailed her audition at the dream school and that was what got her in.

When my youngest when through the same process two years later, I got right back into churning mode — heavily urging him to apply to six schools, nagging him all fall about his essays and entrance requirements.  After he was accepted early to his first choice school, it was my ego that pushed him to get the other applications in, because “what if” he got accepted to someplace “better”.  Wasn’t he curious?  (I certainly was.  He wasn’t.) Luckily, my kids get the happiness thing, because he sat down with me and went through each of the other schools one at a time, explained why he felt they were not as good a fit for him, why he felt he would be happier at the school where he was already accepted, and why that made applying to the other schools an unnecessary exercise.  His arguments were sound and well thought out, but when he used that word: happy, I just wanted to cry.  I realized his understanding of the importance of happiness was what I wanted for him all along.  It truly was the priority.  (I relented and we enjoyed a stress-free, college-application-free holiday.)

Elizabeth Stone wrote “Making the decision to have a child is momentous.   It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside of your body.”  I have to agree.  And I’m grateful that my own two children, those two parts of my heart now walking around in cities far away, get the importance of putting happiness first and knowing that the rest will take care of itself.


© Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jean Nunnally and Clear2Learn with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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