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Happiness or Harvard?

October 10, 2012


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., Psychology Today

Gathering her backpack for school, Carolyn Milander shouted at her mother, “I don’t have a problem!”

Her mother retorted, “You need help, Carolyn! When you get perfect grades, you’re on a high. But when you pull all-nighters and become sleep deprived, you sink into emotional valleys. This terrible cycle has got to end!”

Blurting back in anger, Carolyn screamed, “I hate you!”

This type of angry interchange is all too familiar for today’s teens and their parents. And it’s no surprise. The stress of getting good grades, high scores on standardized tests, and accepted at top-ranked colleges doesn’t encourage happy family dynamics.

Alfie Kohn, a long-time advocate for grade-less schools believes we have to change the systems that produce stress for kids. In a New York Times article, Reconsider Attitudes About Success,he chided parents for overlooking the damage being done by the enormous expectations being placed on children.

But Carolyn’s mother, Vicki, recognized the potential damage and demanded change.

The Happy Class

It was the beginning of her daughter’s freshman year at Bainbridge High School, one of Washington State’s top-ranked public schools. Vicki watched as Carolyn began to respond to increased expectations and pressures to perform.

But instead of watching and hoping things would improve, she insisted Carolyn attend a stress-reduction class sponsored by the Just Know Coalition, a local nonprofit that offered the program through her school. The class was affectionately known as the Happy Class.

When I recently met Carolyn, now beginning her freshman year at Olympic Community College, her joyful personality filled the room. I would not have imagined she was ever anything less than happy.  As a high school valedictorian, homecoming queen, and community volunteer, she oozed with confidence and pride as she spoke of her decision to become a nurse.

What’s compelling about Carolyn’s story is that her life was transformed in early adolescence by an experience that changed her perspective about success and led to greater well-being. According to recent research by the Higher Education Research Institute, the emotional health of today’s incoming college freshman is at its lowest point in twenty-five years. Most students report being overwhelmed by everything they have to do. So how did Carolyn avoid the pitfalls of many of her peers?

More than a coping strategy, the Happy Class gave her the courage to redefine her notions of success. Ironically, many in her community expected her to attend Harvard or another Ivy-League school, but Carolyn created her own version of happiness instead.

Turning Point

When I asked Carolyn to tell me about a turning point that led down a different path than most people expected, she graciously shared her story.

“I remember angrily climbing into the car and sitting silently as my Mom drove me to my first Happy Class,” Carolyn said. “Then I shyly walked into the classroom and took a seat. With the lights off, the leaders and students sat facing each other in a circle.  I felt awkward and embarrassed, hoping no one would see me when they walked by the classroom.”

“We started by closing our eyes, focusing on our breath. The goal was to trace our breath like a roller coaster – in, down, back up, like a loop.” As Carolyn began to notice her breath, she said, “I quit thinking about people in the hallway. I felt relaxed and in the moment.” This was a feeling she liked.

Happy Class was a significant turning point for Carolyn. She learned how to meditate and developed a daily practice that continues four years later. As a result of her practice she began to explore deeper life issues, defining what gave her feelings of happiness and fulfillment. She learned to accept herself for who she was instead of striving for some perfectionistic notion of success placed upon her by society.

Discovering an Identity

Looking back, Carolyn didn’t like the person she had become. Overwhelmed with homework and committed to hours of sports practice, she confessed, “I became depressed and acquired a bad habit of eating in order to gain happiness. With food as my new best friend, I gained twenty pounds in a matter of weeks — no exaggeration!”

When she recalled episodes of arguing with her mother, Carolyn acknowledged it was painful to remember what her life was like before she started meditation. She asserted, “It was the first and last time my mother would ever hear me say that I hated her.”

Meditation helped Carolyn find balance and allowed her to reflect on who she wanted to become. She stopped pulling all-nighters, set priorities for extra-curricular activities, and adopted better eating habits. But she didn’t skimp on hard work, including many AP classes in her schedule.

In the process, she realized that happiness was closer to home than an Ivy-League school. In fact, Carolyn decided to apply to only one college – a 20-minute drive away. “I didn’t want to be tempted with an Ivy-League school, even if I had received a scholarship. I wanted to remain true to thegoals I set for myself.”

Adolescence is the time when young people are supposed to discover their own identities. When Carolyn took the time to discover what was meaningful to her, academic and personal success followed. This is what all teens should be able to do during these important developmental years.

“I feel good about myself for sticking to my ideals,” Carolyn affirmed. “I encourage other teens to make choices that are best for them and to discover what makes them happy. If what makes you happy is attending an Ivy-League school, then that is the path you should take.” In fact, it’s the path many of Carolyn’s friends chose and she says she is genuinely happy for them.

“My goal in becoming a nurse is to help others in meaningful ways,” said Carolyn. What she may not realize is just how much she has already helped and inspired peers and adults in her own community. As a college freshman, she exudes the qualities of a role model that matter most!

Carolyn’s story should inspire parents to think carefully about the differences between happiness and success. And then, to have the courage to nudge their teens into experiences that have potential to shape meaningful, happy, and productive lives. For Carolyn, meditation opened the door to seeing life from a different perspective.

How does your teen define success? What have you done recently to facilitate their long-term happiness?

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