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In his book Becoming Adult, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and co-author Barbara Schneider look at the differences between teenagers on their way to becoming grown-ups who are either more happy and successful, or more unhappy, complacent, and disengaged.
The central ingredient is the amount of time that teenagers spend in play or work, or both, or neither.
Play in this regard is defined as engagement in activities that are enjoyable in the moment; work is defined as activities that may or may not be enjoyable in the moment, but that serve to build skills or resources for future gratification.
Teenagers are happiest when what they are engaged in includes both work and play. They are least happy when what they are doing includes neither.
In addition, those teenagers who have learned to focus much of their time toward work and play end up being more happy and successful as adults. Working hard and playing hard makes for a good life.
If you have a teenager, think about how he or she spends his or her time.
Is she spending most of her time studying, doing extracurricular activities such as sports or work or internships? Or does she spend much of her time in front of the TV, hanging out at the Mall, playing video games, or in empty time either alone or with friends?
I know that quite a few of my friends who have kids are not very clear about this. They know that it would be better for their kids to be doing and sticking with more activities that are engaging and productive, but in the face of a status quo that values being conversant with what’s on TV, or being familiar with the latest video game, or hanging out doing nothing, they come to doubt how much to guide their kids toward activities that require long term dedication and focus, because these are seen by peers and shown in the media as being “un-cool”.
They are not sure whether to get their kids that X-box video player, or for how many hours per day they should limit them. They think they ought to have their kids learn a musical instrument, but when they don’t seem to feel like practicing during the first year of lessons, they think they ought to just give it up. They think that the hanging-out-with-friends-time is just as important and valuable as the reading or practicing or engaging in challenging and fun activities-time.
What the research shows, however, is that these choices are actually pretty darned clear.
It is much better for teenagers to spend their time reading, studying, practicing, playing in active structured activities, doing something truly fun and engaging with friends, working, focusing, and building their skills.
I am not advocating nagging and slave-driving your kids. I am not saying that there is no time for rest, or downtime, or goofing around with friends, or watching a movie or a good TV show, or playing a video game. But this should be a small percentage of a teenager’s actively awake hours - rest time between rich and engaging activity.
Unfortunately, for too many teenagers, these non-activities make up a majority of their waking hours. And this is a waste of precious time and life. You get good at what you practice, and if a teenager practices doing nothing, that is what they will master.
It is also important to teach your kids to engage in fun and constructive activities from the time they are very young, so that they come to value these activities, and seek them out on their own as they get older and become more independent.
Keep this in perspective, though. While it is good to teach and show kids from early on the benefits of engagement and perseverance, younger kids need more gentleness and flexibility with this; they need more time simply goofing around. Younger children will fill this time with their own imagination and creativity, which is crucial for their development.
For younger kids, think of it more in terms of your own intention and gentle - yet clear -guidance toward some activities over others, and expressing and modeling your own enthusiasm for knowledge and positive activity, so that they come to experience and accept that this is how a good life is lived.
Your teenager needs your guidance more than you might realize. Show them by your own actions that engagement is the way to live. Help your older kids to find circumstances and activities that are challenging and absorbing, and peers and mentors who support a lifestyle of engagement, and they will be more likely to build their adult lives around work and play that will see them through into a rich, happy and successful adult life.