I was recently given a copy of two sections of Adam Phillips’s On Balance. The first of these, entitled “Should school make you happy?,” raises an issue worth exploring these days. If we take happiness as a moral demand (“You have to be happy and you are failing if you are not”) then what do we do with our unhappiness?
Non-happy moments are not only unavoidable, but also essential in everyone’s life. At risk of sounding redundant, it’s important to observe that non-happy moments show children how to deal with life when they’re not happy. As Phillips eloquently explains:
It is unrealistic…to assume that if all goes well in a child’s life he or she will be happy. Not because life is the kind of thing that doesn’t make you happy; but because happiness is not something one can ask of a child. Children, I think, suffer—in a way that adults don’t always realize—under the pressure their parents put on them to be happy, which is the pressure not to make their parents unhappy, or more unhappy than they already are. “Be happy” can be a paradoxical injunction, like “be spontaneous”; if you do it you are not doing it, and if you are not doing it you are doing it. And the worst-case scenario could be generations of children cheated on what they were educated to believe was their right to happiness.