Spend much time in the company of Europeans, and here are the things you will NOT hear them talk about: They won’t talk much about their work or their salary, either in a negative ‘if only I made more’ kind of way or a ‘my work is my life’ kind of way’. You will not hear them talk about needing a bigger house, or better car, or the pressures of parenting and the need to save up for college. They don’t drone on an on about how hard it is to raise kids or to find good childcare. In other words, all of the things Americans talk about all the time.
Turns out that Americans aren’t very happy and getting less so. This is according to two separate studies, one by the World Values Survey and another by the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center. And a recent analysis of the World Database of Happiness which has compiled data for the last 60 years shows that over the last quarter of a century Americans have become more depressed while many European countries show the opposite trend.
This does not surprise me in the least. The reason it does not surprise me is that somewhere along the way Americans changed ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to ‘the God-given right to be happy and successful in all things, including but not limited to a top paying career, marriage to a perfect spouse who fulfills every possible need, perfect and brilliant (gifted and talented?) children who are raised by a qualified caregiver but with whom quality time is spent on a regular basis and meaningfully enjoyed by all, a large home paid in full with all the technological bells and whistles and money to redecorate it on a yearly basis, a flashy car – also tricked out with every possible convenience – which is traded in every 18 months or so for the latest model, gas at 1972 prices, health insurance paid for by someone else, and no need to ever ask anyone else for help with anything, EVER.’
There are so many avenues that could be examined regarding this issue, but to get through them all would take more time than I have and more effort, quite honestly, than I am willing to give, so I will focus on the two that are most relevant to me at present; parenting and education.
Parents in this country really are a sorry lot, for the most part. We either have kids and then treat them like accessories, or we allow their existence to become our own, thus losing all autonomy or sense of self. And in both cases, the tendency is to treat children as though they are infants until the age of 18, when they go off to college and are then expected to magically know how to take care of themselves. Balance is virtually non-existent. What ever happened to ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well, of course we can’t have people who aren’t biological parents or carefully screened and licensed caregivers having any input into our children’s lives! What if they are sexual predators or kidnappers? People steal children, you know. You can’t trust anyone, least of all acquaintances who may seem nice, but who knows what they are really like?
As a result of this ultra-paranoia, which is absolutely not supported by any statistics anywhere, parents in the U.S. stress about every little thing, because if something goes wrong they know it will be seen as all their fault.
In my realm – that is the learning out of school realm – most people think homeschoolers choose to do so out of a desire to either spend more ‘quality time’ with their kids (I’m getting to that) or more prevalently, to shelter their kids from the perceived evils of the world. This is a stereotype, but stereotypes come from somewhere and I cannot completely discredit it. I know homeschoolers who are firmly in the quality time and evils of the world camp. But not all of them. In fact I would say the majority of homeschoolers, unschoolers and life learners chose that path out of a desire to provide their kids with an education that is not insular, but incorporates their community and the world. At least I hope so.
I do not profess to be an expert on anything, but I will tell you a few things I know for sure. Balance is everything. I mentioned yesterday that the terms ‘quality time’ and ‘family time’ make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The only reason to tell someone you need a day of ‘family time’ is to get out of doing something you just don’t want to do. Otherwise it’s a crock. It’s like forcing everyone out of the house because it’s sunny and then announcing in a loud, annoyed voice, “Now we’re all going to have FUN!” People who say that they need to ‘spend quality time’ with their kids are definitely out of balance. The idea that isolating yourself from everyone else to ‘spend time’ together, and that somehow that time is going to fill a void in your child’s life is pure delusion. It’s a way for parents to assuage their own guilt and it never works. If everyone in the family is happy, that’s quality time. That might mean the kids are playing with their friends while the adults visit, or maybe friends have been dropped off and Mom gets to read for a while. Maybe everyone is out at a park doing their own thing, or maybe you all decide to go to a movie or dinner.
Another thing I know is that kids are happier when they know their parents are happy. It’s important for your kids to know that you have a life of your own and that sometimes you need time on your own without them. I’m not talking about going off to Europe for two weeks on your own, or even hiring a full time nanny. What I am talking about is being able to tell your kids that you and your spouse are going out on Saturday and they’ll be staying with friends or a sitter for a few hours. Or that you’re going to take 30 minutes to read and unless someone is bleeding they can play on their own. Or arranging a playdate where you drop them off and they know that you are going to spend the time doing something for yourself, like see a movie or take a walk in the park that doesn’t include climbing the rocks or going to the playground. And hey, if you are really psyched to do something with your kids, then let them know it and enjoy (but try to remember in that case not to micro-manage their enjoyment).
Finally, people (including kids, who are people too) are happiest when they are pursuing their own interests and not someone else’s. Which is why we’ve chosen life learning. My kids ‘pursue’ a lot of different things through the course of a day. They don’t always complete everything, but the pursuit makes them happy.
We have this weird idea in today’s America that we are entitled to ‘happiness’ (not the pursuit but the thing itself) and as a result most of us aren’t happy. We cling to the old ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ adage and thus refuse help from anyone – especially the government – and ridicule or belittle anyone who does ask for help, but simultaneously feel entitled to more than we have. We martyr ourselves on the altar of ‘good parenting’ and resent our children for it. We cut ourselves off from our friends and then despise our spouses for not being the perfect leading man (or woman). We spend more hours in school and at work and yet lag behind other countries in education and overall standard of living.
So, you say, who is happy? Well, as countries go, the top of the list every year is either Sweden or Denmark. Why? Most social scientists believe it is because they are strong in social policies that reduce the pressures of parenting, home ownership and health care. (Thus falling into the despised ‘help from the government’ category mentioned above.) Maybe we Americans need to get over ourselves and stop feeling so entitled. The pursuit of happiness is not an entitlement. If anything it’s an endorsement of life learning. Pursue something with passion and happiness will follow. Where the idea that a big house, car and paycheck equals happiness is a mystery to me. Joshua and I tried that route for six months 7 years ago when we left the city for the “American Dream” of suburbia and nearly lost our minds.
So life learning works for our family. It helps us find balance and pursue happiness. We don’t set aside quality time – if you have to do that, what is the rest of your time designated as?