The pursuit of happiness

What do I want for my kids?

Like most parents, I could answer that any number of ways. Good grades. Good schools. A good career. To be creative. To be popular. To be successful. But all those things are just means to an end. What I really want is simple. I want them to be happy.

There's an old saying: You can never be happier than your least happy child. If I could magically map out the path their lives will take, I'd put them on the road to happiness. The problem is, I don't really know how to get there.

I've spent hours researching how to choose a good nanny, how to teach a softball swing, and how to save for a great college. But how do I know if those things will truly make them happy?

This year, I decided to change all that. I decided to focus on the one thing I really want for them, and for myself. I decided to study happiness.

After all, how hard could it be? I'm a guy – I fix things. There must be an owner's manual somewhere.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert dives into the scientific evidence and comes up with an interesting conclusion: When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, human beings are idiots. We spend our lives in a trance – mindlessly chasing things we think will make us happy. We're like Homer Simpson hypnotized by a plate of doughnuts. But when we actually get what we want, the result is seldom what we hoped it would be.

It turns out that the things we pursue – status, wealth, possessions, fame – have little impact on how happy we feel. In fact, in the long run they have none at all. At one point, Gilbert describes a study involving people who win the lottery. At first, their happiness increases. But just one year later, the effect has worn off, and they're no happier than they were before their ship came in. They just go back to where they started.

So if the things we want – for ourselves and for our kids – won't make us happy, what will? According to a large body of research, the secret of happiness is really no secret at all. There's a reliable and lasting source of happiness right in front of us, staring us in the face. Apparently, the true fountain of happiness is our sense of connection between ourselves and the people around us. In a word: intimacy.

Oh, crap.

Wouldn't you know it – there is a manual, but it's in a foreign language. Well, at least for men it is. Luckily, there's a really smart woman who took the time to translate it.

Brené Brown is a research professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Houston. I first saw her on, where she gave a short, funny, and deeply moving talk about intimacy, vulnerability and shame. It changed the way I think about parenting, and the way I think about life.

Brown applied her keen, analytical mind to a question of the heart: What leads to intimacy? She studied people who have a deep sense of love and belonging in their lives and compared them to ones who don't. In the end, only one thing separated the two groups. People who have a sense of love and belonging believe that they are worthy of love and belonging.

Really? That's it? As Homer would say: DOH!

It seems simple, but it's something that eludes many parents, and especially us dads. Men like to fix things – including our kids. We want to tune them up like cars, or program them like DVRs. We want them to be smarter, stronger, and tougher. We want them to be better – and we tell them so.

It's meant as a message of love. We're sure that if we help them succeed, success will lead to happiness. But another message can sneak in and undermine the one we intended. It's a small notion – but once planted, it's hard and resilient, like a seed:

You are not enough.

If we're not careful, this is the thought that takes root and starts to grow. It thrives on our every attempt to make our children perfect. Eventually, it twists around their little hearts and chokes off their happiness like a Kudzu vine.

I'm not saying we should never push our kids. Sometimes they're ready for the next challenge, and what they need from us is a good shove. But before we do that, we should make sure the right message is getting through.

You are imperfect, beautiful, and whole. You are worthy of love. You are enough.

What do I really want for my kids? I think I finally know the answer. The hard part is remembering to ask the question.