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Bill's Values

You Can't be Happy All the Time

Bill Radke

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Eric Wilson
(Courtesy Eric Wilson)

Even if you're tickled pink, you're not as happy as people in, say, Denmark. This week, a study revealed that Denmark is the happiest place on the planet. The United States is 16th. Zimbabwe is the glummiest of the glum. What seems to make people happy is economic growth, democracy and social tolerance -- that's from the World Values Surveys. The surveys have been conducted for the past 26 years.

But Weekend America's Bill Radke is more concerned with family values -- his daughter Susanna turns 17 months this weekend, and he's questioning his own need to see her smile.

This year, I've been doing a monthly series about being a first-time parent, and the values I hope to pass on to my daughter. She's turning 17 months old now. This month's segment is about sadness.

As I've been doing this series, the question that keeps coming up is: Which values are going to help my kid be happy? That's been my test -- forget conventional wisdom, is it going to foster my daughter's happiness? Of course, I've just been taking it for granted that good old American happiness is a noble goal.

My guest today does not think it's a noble goal. He thinks the American pursuit of happiness is "a rather destructive goal that can lead to a pretty attenuated life." His name is Eric Wilson and he's an English professor at Wake Forest University and the author of the book "Against Happiness." And he's a father too -- his daughter is 6.

Eric is inclined to melancholy. When he was a boy, his parents encouraged him to lighten up. Stop over-thinking it. Be happy. That's something he never says to his little girl. "I try very hard not to talk her out of the rough spots of life," he says. "I try to make it clear that it's okay to feel pain. This is a normal part of life. We shouldn't try to convince ourselves that the pain isn't really there. I guess the best way I can put this is, I want her to be realistic."

Eric told me that recently his daughter was interested to learn that his favorite color is black, while hers is pink. He told her he likes like black because, "I like to brood. I want to sit in dark rooms and think. I like twilight." She seemed bemused, not really understanding. But she soon announced that her favorite color is black, too. I asked Eric whether he feels conflicted about this. "Well, my great intellectual hero is Hamlet," he said. "But his black garb didn't do him much good. I think I'll try to encourage something like chartreuse in the next few weeks and we'll see what happens."

He was being lighthearted, but it was a challenging conversation for me. He was saying that sadness, discontent and anger are healthy responses to an unjust world. It's unhappiness that inspires us to change the world. But the thing is, I've been unhappy. And I have felt it drag me down. I was sort of hoping to protect my kid from this poisonous idea that the world is somehow "wrong."

So I asked Eric: How do you know you have to get upset about the world in order to change it? Couldn't you accept the world as it is and then say "And here's another idea!"

He answered: "I think in some ways you've hit upon a real tension in the book, a tension I was not aware of when I was writing the book. On the one hand, there is this sense -- and it's something of a Judeo-Christian sense -- that the world is fallen, it's botched, it's corrupt. But on the other hand, there's another way of looking at the world which tends to be a little more Eastern... And I think it is sort of what you're talking about. You accept the world as it is. It's a wonderful dance between creation and destruction, death and life, and that's what it is. There's no reason to get upset about it."

Hmmm... Eastern ideas. Buddhism, Taoism -- what do they have to say about unhappiness and raising children?

There's a place in Miami Beach called the Institute for Mindfulness Studies. "Mindfulness" is a central Buddhist teaching and it basically means "awareness." When something happens, your brain generates a story about it. When you get caught up in that story you lose awareness of the present, of reality. Of the child who's standing in front of you.

The director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies is Scott Rogers. He wrote a book called The Mindful Parent. He also has a little girl and he told me about something that happened after his mother died at the age of 70.

"I was sitting at the kitchen table and thoughts of my mother had come into my mind, and I was beginning to get a little sad. And my daughter Rose saw that and came over, and began to cry and she gave me a hug and it was a very tender moment. I think that if my daughter hadn't been there, I would have sat at the table with these thoughts that had begun to arise about the sadness: "She was so young." "I never got to go with her to Italy." And of course, it's just my mind doing its thing. And because I was there and I wanted to be there for my child and I wanted to be able to talk with my child about this experience of loss, what naturally arose was how grateful and how wonderful it was to spend so much time with grandma."

But it seemed to me that his regret about not having gone to Italy with his mother was painfully beautiful -- and true. I asked him whether he felt like he lost anything by not dwelling longer in the beauty of that sad truth.

"There's something compelling about staying with a feeling state that is tender," he says. "I think regretting not going to Italy -- which is a bit of a tricking of the mind because it's not happening and it's not going to happen -- creates the question of whether or not moving there (regretting) is present and genuine, or whether moving there is a trick of the mind to create, ultimately, a sad state that need not arise."

Last weekend, I got together with a friend of mine and her 14-year-old daughter. This young lady was livid at how her preferred presidential candidate was being treated. She was thundering about it: "Why doesn't he fight back just as dirty?" I told Scott Rogers that story and he told me that even politically-engaged anger is stuck in the past: "Look what Bush did. Look what the Democrats did." It's all been done.

The question is, what is she doing now to create the world that she wants?

"We can spend a lot of productive time ranting and raving," Scott said, "to soothe this not-liking-what-has-already-taken-place. Or we can craft it and articulate it and move forward in a way that does something about it."

I pointed out that this 14-year old's mom seemed proud, as if she thought, "Yeah she's caught up -- this is the anger that gets things changed in the world!"

He answered: "We love it when our children are inspired. And she's right! I think the question is, we have a lot of people who are inspired to make change. And then they can go in different directions based on how they do that. Some are productive and some can go astray."

So far, my 17-month-old daughter's anguish comes from not being able to put a puzzle together. My instinct is to right away help her with that puzzle -- stop those tears. But what about the other puzzles? A whole life ahead of her where things won't fit the way she'd like?

I agree with Scott Rogers that the mindful person understands that our frustration with the world comes from us, not the world. But he and Eric Wilson believe something in common: Just because my daughter's unhappiness is in her mind doesn't mean it isn't real. Together, maybe she and I can recognize anguish. And appreciate it as a welcome guest -- who knows when to leave.

  • Music Bridge:
    Do Deep-Sea Fish Dream Of Electric Moles?
    Artist: Michio Kurihara
    CD: Sunset Notes (Ba Da Bing)
More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By John H


    I think it's important for everyone to experience sadness, anger, and issues and such and not be shielded away from feeling bad towards bad things.

    However, I don't think it's happy to accept it when a kid goes ballistic because they don't get their candy.

    Having always been appeased when I grew up, and having almost everything justified in my favor, I now face the real world as a college sophomore under anxiety and constant worrying.

    I wish my parents would've pushed more for me to relax.

    Cheers to all.

    By Bill Radke


    Hi, Bill Radke here. What a wonderful group of reflections -- thank you all. It's always touchy for a journalist to speak in the first person ... referring to "my daughter" can blur the fact that the concerns I'm addressing are universal. You've all demonstrated that universality, and taken the ideas further -- just how it's supposed to work. Thanks again.

    By traven escu

    From las vegas, NV, 07/06/2008

    I resent you talk about your own daughter on Weekend America every time she lets out a fart!
    Why should Weekend America give your daughter so much space? I know of at least 4 separate occasions you took the time on Weekend America to update us on your daughter's nonsense.
    I've been listening to NPR some 35 years now, and I don't ever remember anything so arrogant from any of the hosts!
    And, yes, I do switch the station every time you talk about this subject.

    By Francine Jacome

    From Newport Beach, CA, 07/05/2008

    As a single mother of a 5-year old boy, I've come to realize how childhood has changed since I was young. Many parents today have become over-protective, over-competitive, and worst of all, cannot allow their children to make mistakes. Your comments about your daughter and her puzzles brought to mind this growing trend. I won't say I'm not guilty of the same. Who wants to watch their child struggle in frustration? I catch myself stepping in to solve a difficult task for him. But then, I step back and remind myself I am only harming him. I am taking away his opportunity to figure things out on his own and use his own unique imagination to solve problems.

    The values I try to pass on to him are simple. Be kind, be honest, be self-sufficient. He is too young to truly understand these concepts, but one day they will come to him naturally. I now try as much as I can to allow him to fall down and pick himself back up. Then, I remind myself, through his crocodile tears and my aching heart, that this will only make him stronger.

    By Leslie Speakes


    Bill, sounds like you really need a copy of The Illuminated Rumi:
    "This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome & attend them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond . . . Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off. That undressing and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief."

    Aside from this, I just wish you wouldn't insist on an artificial East/West, Judeo-Christian vs. "Eastern" dialectic. The sentiments expressed above in Rumi are quite similar to what we read, for example, in the Divine Mercy writings of the Blessed Faustina Kowalska. At one point she bemoans that she has nothing to give Jesus. "Give me you miseries," He says. Why? "They're the only things that are truly yours."

    By Paul Massari

    From Salem, MA, 07/05/2008

    Dear Bill,

    This morning, I walked along the rugged coast of Rockport, Massachusetts, the salt air saturated with the smell of the roses blooming in people's lavish gardens. Every "Good morning," I gave and received was a blessing. I felt the greatest joy and love for life.

    Just a day earlier I'd been struggling through a painful memory in a psychotherapist's office where I've been going for years to treat post traumatic stress disorder. I felt deep sadness, frustration, even despair. (And no, I'm not bipolar.)

    I don't think of the joy I felt this morning as a "good" or "productive" feeling. I don't think of the pain I felt yesterday as "bad" or "destructive." I think that assigning a moral value to emotions like happiness or anger is a very odd--and perhaps American--thing to do.

    My wife and I are trying to get pregnant now. If I have a daughter as you do, I think I will tell her that there are difficult and painful things in life. There are also wonderful things. I'd say that if she tries to avoid painful feelings, it can make it hard to experience pleasant ones. On the other hand, if she dwells too much on pain, she might miss some fun. Part of being a grown up is understanding when you need to "change the channel" emotionally and when you need to "sit through the program," even when it's uncomfortable.

    Then, when we're done talking, I'll say a prayer that my doughter will be able to obtain that self-knowledge with so many voices telling her what's right and good to feel.


    Paul Massari
    Salem, MA

    By David Wells

    From Minneapolis, MN, 07/05/2008

    Hello Bill, I heard your story today and couldn't resist responding to it. This may sound off the wall to you, but there is another way of looking at things. I have found that when my need is very strong to have things happen as I think they need to, or that I have to be right I can change how I feel my desiring more to have inner peace. You might want to check out "A Course in Miracles" an independent self-study of Christian values, but not the dogmatic, doctrinal ones we've been taught.
    In addition to the text there is a workbook with 365 lessons. If you go to acimoprah.com you can listen to Marianne Williamson read the lesson each day. There is no headquarters, or leaders, or anyone to tell you what to believe, or to take money for anything. There are small groups all over the world who meet to read and discuss, but each is independent of the other, which is the way I believe was the original intention. Also, it says it is not the only way to inner peace, but is a way. I have been a student for only 11 years, but have found such peace, and so wish that everyone could have the same.

    By rob drury, ph.d.

    From richland, WA, 07/05/2008

    Hi Bill-

    For the last 10-15 years many innovative neuroscientists have been deeply probing the question you, like I and most parents, are vitally concerned with:

    "Which values are going to help my kid be happy? That's been my test -- forget conventional wisdom, is it going to foster my daughter's happiness? Of course, I've just been taking it for granted that good old American happiness is a noble goal".

    Our work at the Wisdom Institue here in Washington State has collected a more broad and comprehensive view than the "conventional wisdom" which is often misleading, oversimplistic dangerous or just plain WRONG.

    In surveying the many variables that can affect the child's current and future happiness, health, and almost every other measure of quality of life, the winner is: Attachment Process. Sigmund Freud and John Bowlby began the search and now affective neuroscience has made tremendous progress. I have summarized some of this in a pesentation I made to the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, and Allan Schore of UCLA wrote the massive "Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self". I would be glad to work with you on a show that presents this essential material in an accessible way. Keep up the good work!


    By Matthew Long

    From Cincinnati, OH, 07/05/2008

    Mr. Radke,
    This afternoon I caught your piece on happiness and just wanted to contribute a thought one on of your last points about inspiration through anger. Many of my friends believe that I am a easily disgruntled and negative person. I see only the negative aspects of the world and pass over the good things. I completely agree with my friends but would never change myself because therein lies my inspiration. Dwelling upon the troublesome and negative parts of life has led me to protest against injustices I see in the world. The reality is people less inclined to focus on the negative are not free of recognizing sadness and injustice, but because of their desire to pass over what is negative they ignore reality. They register a few complaints, which I call whining, and then move forward as if nothing has happened. If this type of impotence is what constitutes happiness then I would prefer to remain with my melancholy and the will to change what I find negative.

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