Youth and Happiness: Where it’s at



Adolescence is a time of adjustment between childhood dependency and adult responsibility.  For many, it is a very difficult adjustment.  Many young people believe that their parents have the power to make them happy, or to take all their bad feelings away.  When they continue to feel unhappy, they blame their parents.


It is common during adolescence and early adulthood to question everything one learned as a child, and to look at things critically, comparing reality with their own ideals and beliefs about how things “should be.”  In particular, adolescents frequently look at their own parents very critically, discovering all sorts of faults that they might not have noticed as children.  This helps motivate the adolescent to reach toward independence so that they will be able to move out on their own and get further away from the imperfect parent.  It may be many years before the adolescent can examine themselves as critically as they examine their parents, as that requires a level of maturity and self-esteem that many adolescents lack.


It may also take some time to discover that their parents are not, in fact, the key to their happiness.  No parent on earth has the power to make a miserable child happy.  It is an illusion of both adolescents and our society in general that parents either create or can fix all the feelings that an individual has.


In reality, everyone is born with their own unique emotional range and tendencies.  Of course, one’s experiences in childhood have an impact on one’s emotional life.  But what may seem like a huge depressing trauma to one person , is taken in stride by another. 


Certain extreme experiences like childhood sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, or never being loved or cared for by anyone will have a traumatic and detrimental impact on anyone, and most people so victimized could greatly benefit from professional assistance in recovering from such traumas.


But other childhood events and conditions such as divorce, being a latchkey kid, being

adopted, growing up in a multi-ethnic family, having a parent in prison, having a lesbian, gay or transgender parent, having a severely handicapped sibling, having a parent or sibling die, having an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent, having a parent or sibling with mental illness, etc., are all conditions that different people react to in different ways.  Some people enjoy their own sense of uniqueness and appreciate the insight that they gain from their seemingly unusual experience (although these experiences are much more common than many people realize).  Others attach all their bad feelings to their childhood circumstances and drown  themselves in self-pity because they interpret these experiences as “bad”, or unfair and the cause of all their unhappiness.


In reality, unhappiness is generally a result of a combination of brain chemistry and thought habits.  Again, extreme traumas and conditions, past or present, can also play a big role.  Not too many people can be happy right after they are raped or someone they love is murdered, for example.  But most people’s unhappiness is more connected to their own habitual ways of thinking and/or their brain chemistry, than to their actual conditions.


Research has demonstrated that how you view your situation (half-full glass or half-empty glass), does much more to determine your level of happiness than whatever your situation actually is.  A person with very little who is grateful for all that he or she has, is generally much happier than a person with plenty who is never satisfied. 


For people whose unhappiness is mostly based on their own pessimistic thinking, cognitive therapy can be very helpful in changing those habits of thought that keep a person trapped in depression, self-pity and misery.


For some people, therapy alone is not enough, because they have a chemical imbalance in their brain that makes it extremely difficult to feel good no matter what they do.  For such people medication is necessary to correct the imbalance, just as vitamin supplements are needed for people with a vitamin deficiency.  In such cases, it is important for the individual to continue therapy along with the medication to develop and maintain healthy ways of  perceiving and interpreting life.  Otherwise, self-destructive thought habits can lead one back into a depression that can actually alter one’s brain chemistry back into an unbalanced state.


One of the patterns of thought which can make a significant difference between feeling generally happy or generally depressed, is the cultivation of appreciation and gratitude.  One helpful activity is to make a list of all the things that are good in your life.  If you feel like you lack material items, make a list of all the things that you do have, and think about how much more difficult your life would be without those things.  If you feel that no one cares for you, make a list of everyone who has ever said they cared about you, or ever helped you in any way.  Even if they also did things that you did not like, put them on the list if they helped you or said good things to you.  If you think that you are  bad or stupid or incompetent or have no good skills or qualities, make a list of everything that you are good at, and all the good qualities that you do have.  List some qualities or skills that you would like to develop further.


You can also make a list of the things you think are bad in your life, and then try to think of at least on good aspect to each bad thing.  For example, if you are sad that you have a parent in prison, think about how you can be an understanding person for someone else in the future who has a parent in prison.  Perhaps having a parent in prison will someday inspire you to do something good for prisoners in general; fight for better prison conditions; or maybe write a book about your experiences.


Look at your lists of good things every day and appreciate all that is good in your life and in yourself.  Learn to appreciate that you are alive and have this wonderful opportunity to experience life.


If you are not able to recover from your depression using methods like this, then seek the help of a qualified therapist who is familiar with cognitive-behavioral techniques and can work with you to develop a healthier and happier state of mind.  If, after a few months in therapy you still feel very depressed, (or if at any time you feel suicidal), seek the assistance of a competent psychiatrist to find a medication that will be helpful in restoring your brain’s ability to allow you to feel good. 


Be aware that everyone reacts differently to different medications, and new medications are being developed all the time.  Thus it is very common to have to experiment with several different medications (under the guidance of a psychiatrist or other medical doctor) before finding the medication that works best for you (with the least side-effects).


Any of these measures, practiced with real motivation and diligence, can make a great positive impact in your life and your ability to be generally happy instead of generally sad.  Being happy also frees up your energy to accomplish the things you want to do in life, whereas depression is exhausting and depressed people frequently get very little done.  Never-the-less, no matter how depressed you feel, it is up to you to take steps to get the help you need to help yourself, and start down the road to happiness.  No one else can make you happy if you don’t try to make these changes yourself.


It is a real sign of maturity when a you come to realize that it is not your parents, but in fact you yourself who holds the key to your own happiness.



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