The Greatest Threat to a Happy Life

I have about 200 ideas swirling around in my head. What topic should I address in this first substantive blog post? The lessons I’ve learned and unlearned over the past 61 years are many. And who knows how many I have yet to learn and unlearn? It makes sense to lead with the most important. Yet how does one prioritize? This morning it occurred to me to do it thusly (don’t see that word used often, do you?): Begin as though you had only one post to make.

So if I could leave only one message for our granddaughter, Vera, what would it be? Here is where I cheat just a bit. There are two: a 1 and 1A. I’ll address 1A in the next post. Today, I begin with what I consider to be the greatest threat to anyone’s happiness.

I’m not certain, but I think this threat may be innate. Perhaps not — perhaps it’s acquired. Perhaps it owes its vitality to religion and the stories humans have told each other through the ages to explain the unknowable, or as a tool for some to dominate others. I’m not sure. But I am sure of its power and the destructive force of this threat — as well as its pervasiveness.

I hope you never feel its power, Vera, but I am sure you will be assaulted by this insidious force in your lifetime, probably many times. There are two defenses to this assault that may prove successful: one internal (this is on you) and one external (controlled mainly by your parents).

An adequate defense begins with awareness. You can’t defend against threats you don’t perceive.

This threat does not have one name; it goes by many. But no matter the name, and no matter how it comes to you, its essence is the same. At its core, it tries to convince you that you are not good enough. That you are unworthy. That you have not achieved enough. That you have not made a difference. That you are damaged goods. That you are not strong enough to meet the challenges of everyday life. That you have no innate value, but that your worth is dependent upon that which you do or accomplish or possess. That you should feel guilty. That you are a failure.

The damage this force wreaks is incalculable.

Not long ago your grandmother and I were in Palo Alto, California. Palo Alto is an unusual town. It’s at the heart of Silicon Valley, the high-tech capital of the world. The average IQ in this town is well above average, as is the average household income. The level of education achieved by many of its residents is well above average, too. Many of the town’s kids go off to Ivy League and other elite colleges (such as hometown Stanford). I guess you could say that this town is a collection of the “best and brightest.” Super-achievers.

A few weeks prior to our visit, I read a sobering story in The Atlantic magazine about the youth in Palo Alto. It’s a story that every over-achieving and over-demanding parent might want to read. I’m not going to try to summarize it here; suffice it to say that it’s clear that the best and brightest super-achievers aren’t necessarily happy. Indeed, they can feel like utter failures. They can become desperate people.

I’m not picking on Palo Alto. Far from it. It’s not alone in this. It’s just that people don’t expect bad things to happen there. Success overflows its community cup. People must wonder: how could smart, talented, successful people, who seemingly have everything going for them, be unhappy?

I’m sad to admit that I wasn’t surprised by the story, probably due to the time I served as the president of a college. I had a general awareness of the epidemic of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental and emotional problems besetting our youth today. I knew of the tremendous demands on colleges’ counseling services and had a pretty good idea how many young people were on mood altering and anxiety reducing chemicals. (We like to call chemicals that require a prescription “medicine,” but let’s be clear, they’re chemicals.)

I also know it’s not something that’s assaulting only our youth. Many, many adults are in the same boat.

As tragic as the individual stories are, I don’t want you to think that only individuals are casualties of this destructive force about which I’m writing. Far from it. Indeed, it can embed itself into the culture of a place. I was reared in such a culture. And from what I can tell, rural and high-performance cultures, despite their dissimilarities, are particularly susceptible to this.

Growing up, I think it’s fair to say I lived among people who generally were a proud people. Yet the older I got, something else came into view. I saw embedded within our culture a sense of inferiority.

Some of this comes from the bias that is projected upon rural communities by elite-feeling urban society (aka “rich city snobs”). Some comes from an awareness of having less wealth and fewer worldly experiences. Quite a bit of it comes from religion.

I was reared among people who attended church regularly, as most rural people at that time were apt to do. So it was on a weekly basis, if not more often, that all of us were reminded how defective and deficient we were — indeed, how unworthy we were. And perhaps more damaging, we were left with the prospect of never being good enough.

Back to Palo Alto. What’s happening there is a stark reminder that happiness isn’t an inevitable product of “success.” Yet we also know that poverty isn’t a guarantor of happiness either.

What’s clear, however, is that our society tells people, in subtle yet clear ways, that happiness comes with money and prestige. Or that achievement is the path to success and happiness. Society tell us that students with better grades or who get admitted into elite colleges are “better.” That people who make more money or have more wealth are “successes” (the implication being obvious, I hope). That people who wear the right clothes and drive the more expensive cars are superior. That people who are “good looking” are better in some way. The world tells us that these things are the keys to happiness. Don’t believe it for a second.

If it were that simple, bright teenagers in Palo Alto who have the world by the tail wouldn’t feel like failures. And generous country folk wouldn’t feel inferior. And kids and parents from well-heeled suburban homes wouldn’t be consuming anti-anxiety chemicals and antidepressants in record quantities. And more than 1,000 people in my home state of Colorado wouldn’t be taking their own lives each year.

So what have I learned about happiness over the years that perhaps can benefit you?

The first thing I’ve learned is that there are many things in this world that seek to undermine it. Earlier, I referred to it as a force. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. It’s as if there is a voice in the universe constantly whispering into our ears that we’re not good enough. It’s as if it’s intent is to spur people into chasing things that serves the voice’s purpose — things like materialism, extreme individualism and nationalism.

As if often the case, where there is a loser, there you will also find a winner. There always are two sides of a coin. As one person suffers, someone else benefits. Another way of looking at it, unhappiness is great for business (e.g., retail businesses, pharmaceutical companies and politicians).

So what I’ve learned is this: it’s more important to listen to the voice within than all the noise on the outside.

Whether it’s through meditation or simply a heightened awareness of your being, be mindful of the voice within. It probably knows what will bring you happiness. And what will undermine it. The inner may be telling you something very different from the voices on the outside. When there is dissonance, give the inner priority.

It is your life. No one else’s. Claim it. Own it. Treat it as the greatest gift you will ever receive. It is precious. You are precious. If you listen carefully, you will know what brings you happiness. Heed the voice.

But don’t ever underestimate the external power that seeks to drown out that voice. To that end, you might want to be very careful about putting yourself in an environment that constantly seeks to remind you of your unworthiness. Don’t underestimate the power of those voices, whether they are adorned in the trappings of wealth, prestige, education or holiness.

If you allow them, they will bury into your mind and soul and you will come to believe your worth and happiness are dependent upon that which you achieve or possess (especially, relative to what others have), or how much you do for others, forgetting that your true sense of worth and well-being comes from within, nourished by nothing more complex or expensive than unconditional love.

In the most simplest terms then, I suppose what I’ve learned is that everyone is good enough. We’re all born worthy. We simply have to believe it and be courageous enough to be the people we are meant to be and not the people others think we should be. (More on courage in my next post.)

I’ve learned that the external is crucial. I’ve come to understand that many of us are unwittingly increasing the volume of the voice that tells others that they are not good enough (or that we are better). In a sense, we unknowingly become whisperers of lies.

If I could relive my life as the parent of young children, I would endeavor to drown my children in unconditional love. I would be more mindful of the unintentional ways my words and actions, including words and actions withheld, could be perceived by a tender soul as suggesting any conditionality to that love. Or disappointment. And I would do more to protect them from the voice (the force) that tries to convince them of their own unworthiness, whether that voice emanates from a loving, high-achieving parent with high expectations, a hierarchical society that worships money, or places or people who claim special knowledge of the truth.

I would try harder not to pressure my kids, even inadvertently. I would try harder to remain silent at those times when silence is best. I would try harder to excite them about the magnificence of the world. I would take them to more places. I would encourage them to listen for and follow the voice within and pay less attention to the noise emanating from those who are merely seeking to validate their own choices or to feel superior.

I would try harder to avoid using words like “should” or “ought,” or “bad” or “good.” And I would endeavor to relish in their being and not allow my mind to wonder to what they might be or what they might be capable of achieving. Or what grades they should earn. Or what could happen to them if they didn’t excel. Or, god forbid, whether that would reflect poorly on me. Or whether they would reach their potential. Etc. Etc.

But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned not to use those words (ought, should, bad, good, etc.) with, or impose those expectations on, myself. And to be more understanding and forgiving of my own mistakes and limits. And not to feel like I have to make a difference in the world. And I’ve learned to see guilt for what it truly is — another face of a destructive force that seeks to claim our lives.

I’ve also learned to have more confidence in what the universe is telling me and to be more suspect of self-interested whisperers. I’ve learned that nature will nourish me and enhance the inner-voice if I simply allow it. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of place.

I’ve also learned it may be important to confirm that which is obvious to me but may not be obvious to others. So I’ve learned that it’s important to tell you, Vera, in the parlance of one of my favorite passages from ancient literature, that you are my beloved granddaughter, in whom I am well pleased. And your parents are my beloved children, in whom I am well pleased, as is your uncle Andrew and everyone else in this tribe we call family.

The force that undoubtedly will come to you disguised as guilt, ambition, pride and fear will try to tell you it isn’t so — that you aren’t good enough as you are or that you have to earn others’ pleasure. Or that you have failed. The thought of getting less than an A on an exam may create anxiety. Pressure to get into the “best” school may seem overwhelming. Disappointment with your actions, words, and thoughts may lure you into a state of self-loathing, perhaps in a mistaken belief of self-cleansing.

Stand firm. Do not allow any person or ideology to convince you that your worth is dependent upon your achievements, appearance, résumé, wealth, or other societal definition of success or perfection. Always remember that the greatest threat to a happy life is one’s failure to do that which he or she knows leads to happiness, no matter what anyone else thinks. You were born “good enough,” and you shall always be good enough.

Vera, above all else, know that you are beloved. Everything else is noise.


One thought on “The Greatest Threat to a Happy Life

  1. I have come to believe over the years that you will never find happiness if you are not happy yourself. It definitely has to come from within. The other thing that comes to mind is my grandson, who is on the Autism scale and has ADHD. I never had to deal with any of this before. My daughter, who is a single parent, has to deal with it more then I do. She sees the judgment of people who have no idea what she goes through and it hurts. Yes, he is different, but he is very loving and caring. He struggles in school because he can’t focus and had to be taken out of the regular math class in third grade and placed in special ed, which I was so upset at first thinking he will get made fun of and it bothered me for a few weeks until I realized this is what he needs to feel better about himself to feel a sense of accomplishment. He was fine with going to another math class but what is wrong with me. I never had anybody in special ed, and I had a hard time excepting it. I am fine with it now because I had to remind myself it’s not about me, it’s what is best for him, and I realize this doesn’t mean he won’t be able to go on and make something of himself. But I do see the daily struggles, not being able to be in sports because he doesn’t listen to the rules. [His mother] tried that and it was a disaster, people whispering why would she put him on the team he is such a distraction and he was. She wanted him to be able to do what he other kids were doing but she would go home crying knowing he couldn’t play the games like the other kids, so he isn’t on any teams, and he is okay with it. He actually had found his place with other children with similar issues as he goes to group therapy once a week at the Center Of Autism. He loves it, and you don’t have to worry about him be judged there.
    I really enjoyed your thoughts, and I didn’t mean to get in all this but just wanted to say everyone is different and has a place in this world. [Names omitted to protect privacy.]


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