When it comes to how happy you are, most of it you cannot control: 70% is what you’re born with. It’s a setpoint, sort of like your weight. You can diet, but you tend to go back to your usual weight sooner or later. It’s the same outcome even with trauma. If you lose an arm, you’ll be sad for a while but you’ll go back to your usual happiness setpoint sooner or later.
How happy you are is also determined by your childhood, which, of course, you do not control. A happy childhood leads to happy thoughts. (Though a happy childhood does not generally changed pre-determined outcomes which are largely nature rather than nurture.)
When it comes to our own happiness, the number-one thing we can control is our relationships. And people who are married are happier. This does not mean that people with kids are happier. They aren’t. But people who keep a marriage together are happier. And for sure, their kids are happier.
1. Teach kids that fending for yourself is unnecessary.
It’s so against the grain to raise kids with a goal of getting married. It’s way cooler to be like a traditional Baby Boomer and tell children they need to be able to fend for themselves.
The first problem with this logic is that the biggest career decision you make is who you marry. So all the preparation for a career can be undermined in that one moment when you fall in love. If you marry someone who doesn’t make any money, then all those jobs you might want that don’t pay well are off limits to you.
The other problem with telling people to learn to fend for themselves is that if you have children to support, fending for yourself is the number-one risk factor for poverty. So instead of telling kids they have to learn skills in case their marriage ends, teach kids they have to learn skills to keep their marriage together. You have to work hard at whatever you want to be good at.
Divorce is terrible for kids, and financially ruinous for the parents, so why do we talk about a math crisis but not a relationship skills crisis? In fact, improving relationship skills would probably do a lot more for this country than improving math scores.
2. Teach kids how to fight.
Psychologist John Gottman discovered a reliable predictor of whether or not couples will stay together: watching them fight. Couples who fight dirty don’t last. If you teach your child how to deal with conflict in a productive, healthy way, then your child will be able to fight fair in marriage, and the marriage will last.
Passive-aggressive behavior is the road to hell. Name-calling should be out of bounds for people who care about each other. But storming out of the room, saying you hate what the other person is doing, complaining that you are not getting your needs met—these things are all fair game, and actually essential to healthy relationships.
(Everyone should buy Gottman’s book. It helps adults and it helps adults to help kids. And when I look at this picture, me and my husband and my son, I think of all the work I’ve done to learn how to fight so I can keep a marriage together for my kids.)
3. Teach kids how to use Myers Briggs to find a mate.
It’s so clear to me that understanding personality type gives you the keys to the kingdom for getting along with others. First of all, you’ll be better at picking a mate if you understand your strengths and weaknesses as well as your potential mate’s. And you will understand what you can expect from your mate and what is hard-coded by understanding their core personality. Why don’t we teach this to kids when they are dating? Dating should be practice for picking the personality type that can get you what you want in life.
For example, you can’t have someone who’s both fun and artistic and also driven to earn money. The human brain simply does not work that way. And you can’t have someone who cares about keeping order in the present and planning wildly for the future. Those traits don’t come together either. If you understand that you can make a decision about which you want for your partner, instead of choosing ignorantly and unknowingly, you will naturally choose smarter. (Good starting points on this topic: How to choose a husband, and how to choose a wife.)
Let’s stop pretending that book knowledge and intellectual pursuit is more important than holding a marriage together. Let’s stop pretending that marriage is a roll of the dice. It’s not. It is the result of learning and using skills that take years to master. And childhood is a great time to begin developing those skills.