After decades of research about what makes a person happy, it turns out that self-regulation is at the top. Sonja Lyubomirsky studies every day actions that can increase our happiness and it turns out they all require self-discipline -from giving two random compliments a week to walking with a book on our head for one minute a day. Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling book The Happiness Project is her leveraging self-regulation to test out the theories of positive psychology in every day life (for example, five compliments to her husband for every criticism.)

I did my own five-year investigation of the research behind positive psychology and at the end of it, I felt that the demands on my willpower far exceeded my self-regulation abilities. So I ended up settling for an interesting life rather than a happy one. (Maybe you should pick that too – here’s a way to test yourself.)

Which brings us to schools. Schools are obsessed with self-regulation. If you live in a low-functioning school district, self-regulation means only that you don’t bring a gun to school. If you live in a rich-kid school district self-regulation means don’t eat the marshmallow that’s sitting in front of you and you’ll get put in the gifted program (because the correlation between self-regulators and giftedness is actually high.)

The problem is that the test for self-regulation is if a child will do what the teacher needs him to do.  But real world self-regulation is deciding what you want for yourself and taking steps to get it, even if that may delay gratification until later.

I love this picture (up top) because it’s my son exhibiting enough self-regulation to run an egg-selling business at age eight. This is what it looks like when he does daily egg collection from the barn: he got a friend to do most of the work, they did an egg toss with two maybe-rotten eggs, they did a little karate on the way home, and later my sold the eggs.

It doesn’t look like school. But it looks like great self-regulation to me. Because the first step to self-regulation is deciding what you want so much that you are willing to structure your life around it. And doing that has absolutely nothing to do with behaving in school, because what smart kid has as a goal to learn the list of stuff some administrator somewhere says will be good for them?

It gets worse. The New Republic has a great description of how teachers are telling parents that kids who don’t self-regulate the way the teacher wants look like trouble makers, and those kids are the first to be sent to a doctor to be evaluated for medication.

Over and over again we see examples of how the highest functioning kids in the world are the lowest functioning at school. How many of our kids will we sacrifice to this way of thinking until there’s a massive parenting intervention and rescue effort to take those kids home, where they can learn to self-regulate for real?