The Irony of “We Just Want You to Be Happy”

John Lennon

I’m a dad to two wonderful little boys, ages 6 and 4. They make me smile, they make me laugh, they make me a better person. Before becoming a dad, I had always heard that having children makes you experience love that you had never experienced before.

Love

And you know what? It’s absolutely true. 

As I think about their future and what I want them to experience in life, it’s really very simple: I want my boys to be happy.

Although I can’t say for sure, I would guess that happiness is ultimately what most parents want for their kids. Because seeing your kids happy makes you happy.

As a college professor, I talk to a lot of students about their futures. A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one who wanted to talk about what he’s planning to do after he’s done with college. He told me that after graduation, he wants to travel. In fact, he has already planned a trip with some friends that will include hiking and biking through Europe for several weeks. After the excursion is over, he wants to stay in Europe a little longer and explore on his own. His goal is to have some experiences that will help him “figure out” what he wants to do with his life.

His dad, on the other hand, wants no such thing: His dad wants him to come home as soon as possible and map out a plan for his future.

“He told me that I need to have a plan,” the student said. “He’s pressuring me, but I know that he just wants me to be happy.” (Notice how the word “just” implies that the student is not doing the things that will ultimately make him happy.)

I hear this frequently: students whose parents “just want them to be happy.” And you know what? I don’t doubt it a bit. As I said before, that’s what I want for my kids.

But what does “We just want you to be happy” really mean?

I think there are several possibilities.

want-you-happyIt might mean, “We wouldn’t be happy doing what you’re doing; we doubt you will be either.”

Or it might mean, “That’s too risky, and we want you to have secure future.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t want you to make the same mistakes we did” or the related sentiment, “We want you to have a better life than us.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t believe doing that is a viable career choice.”

Or it might mean, “We don’t think you’ve had enough experiences in life to know what will eventually make you happy.”

I’m sure there are others.

Although the intention of the message most likely includes, “We really do want you to be happy,” to students, it gets interpreted as one of control: an attempt, either implicitly or explicitly, to make them do something the parents want them to do.

And quite frequently, this is exactly what happens. Students end up doing what their parents (or professors or others) want them to do.

I remember having a conversation with a student a few years that went something like this:

Student: “I think I want to go to graduate school.”

Me: “Great! What do you want to pursue?”

Student: “I think I want to go into counseling.”

Me: “Great! How come you want to do that?”

Student: “Well, I really don’t want to. I don’t like counseling or even school that much. I just wish I could be done . . . but my parents want me to get my master’s degree.”

As this student completed her last sentence, I could see the dread in her face. In fact, I remember seeing her lip quiver, as if she was on the verge of tears. I never heard what she actually did after getting her bachelor’s degree, but I can almost guarantee that she was not going to be happy in graduate school (and beyond, if she continued to pursue a career in counseling).

Look, I’m not judging students who choose careers for reasons like this. In fact, I completely understand why. Doing what your parents (or professors or others) want you to do is a simple, yet powerful, way to say, “Hey, thanks for all the support you’ve given me over the years.”

Unfortunately, choosing a career because others want you to is, more often than not, a recipe for unhappiness. When you do something because you’re trying to make others happy (or, worse yet, when you’re trying to avoid their anger or displeasure if you don’t do what they want you to), it often comes at the expense of your own happiness.

Ironically, then, the impact of “We just want you to be happy” is often quite the opposite: It makes students anything but happy.

Let’s take a brief look at why this is.

Psychological Control

In psychology, the term “psychological control” refers to the feeling that someone else is trying to control your behavior. Generally, psychological control can come in a few different forms. Someone might threaten punishment if you don’t behave a particular way. For instance, a student once told me that his dad would not pay his college tuition if he chose to major in music. I also knew a student whose family disowned him because they went to the University of Alabama and he decided to attend bitter rival Auburn University.

A second form of psychological control occurs when people try to make you feel guilty for your choices. The parent who says, “Well, if you decide to major in English and you can’t get a job, then I guess you’ll just have to deal with it.” Or the family friend who says, “You still don’t know what you want to do after graduation? Everyone else does.” Or your uncle who says, “Everyone in your family is an accountant. Why wouldn’t you want to be an accountant, too?”

There are other types of psychological control, but I think you probably get the point. Ultimately, people use various forms of psychological control to try and get you to think and feel as they do or to try and get you to pursue goals that will somehow benefit them.

Unfortunately, as the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (1987, 2000) have shown, the use of psychological control is associated with a variety of negative outcomes: decreased motivation, less creativity, lower self-esteem, obsessive behavior, and lower levels of happiness.

People don’t like feeling controlled, and it takes its toll on their psychological well-being.

Autonomy Support

On the flip side is the notion of “autonomy,” which means that you feel free to make your own choices and to express the most authentic, or realest, side of yourself. You are being who you are because that’s who you want to be–not because you’re feeling pressured.

One way that the feeling of autonomy emerges is through “autonomy support,” where others support your desire to act freely and in a way that truly represents who you are.

Like psychological control, autonomy support can come in many forms. For instance, someone can simply (and authentically) support the choices you make: the parents who say, “We support your decision to be a music major. Go for it!” Or the professor who secretly wants you go to graduate school but who nevertheless supports your decision to go into the Peace Corps instead.

A person who is autonomy supportive also tries to empathize with you–he or she attempts to see things from your perspective: your friend who says, “I absolutely see why you’d want to be a family counselor. That sounds so cool!”

As Deci and Ryan (and others) have also shown, autonomy support produces a number of positive psychological outcomes, including increased motivation, higher self-esteem, improved creativity, and better overall well-being.

Oh yeah, it also has a significant effect on happiness: the more autonomy support people experience, the happier they are.

Moving Away From “We Just Want You to Be Happy”

Ironically, by pressuring our kids to do things that we think will make them happy, we often push them in an unintended direction: toward a life of unhappiness. I’m not the parent of a college-age student, but I think I talk to enough of them to have an idea of how they feel. At some point, I think we (parents, professors, and others) need to accept the fact that our kids–especially when they get to be of college age–probably have a better idea of what makes them happy than we do (just as we had a better idea than our parents did). They’ve had enough experiences to sort that out. And I truly believe that most of them don’t want to live a completely frivolous life. They want to do something that will make a difference, something that matters. And they’ll figure that out.

We can give them advice and explain our reasons for doing so, but as my wife always says, “It’s their journey, not ours.” If we ultimately want them to be happy, I think we need to move away from the psychological control that often comes with “just wanting them to be happy” and, instead, move toward the autonomy support that will actually make them happy.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Irony of “We Just Want You to Be Happy””

  1. Great post. The whole time I was reading it, this quote kept coming to mind, “I promise to love you for who you are, and not for who I want you to be.” (I can’t find the source) It has been a helpful quote as my kids age and my ideas for what is best creep in. I like how you put it here. It will help.

    1. Thanks for reading, Jan! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I hope others find it useful as well.

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