Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Grown-Up Version Of Happiness

November 13, 2006

In his book, "Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult," psychiatrist Frank Pittman offers a theory of happiness based on taking responsibility for our choices.

This is not a pleasant "feel good" type of book. It challenges us to live up to our sense of integrity and honor. Pittman feels that society is evolving toward an adolescent view of happiness: a lazy, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-conscious, blaming rule-breaker. His book is a needed wake up call to a culture teaching us to act on impulse, emotion and self-centered expediency.

Even as an adult who tries to be responsible most of the time, it made me feel uncomfortable. It is easier to see its benefits for a lot of people I know. The problem is how do you give a gift or recommend a book that has "Grow Up!" as its title?

Keep busy or be responsible. To Pittman, happiness can be achieved in two ways. The first way is by not thinking about it and just letting it come upon us as we are living a busy life. The second way is through understanding happiness and realizing we can create a happy life for ourselves and our loved ones by taking responsibility for our choices and reactions. We start with where we are at, with what we have been given and go from there.

Pittman believes that happiness involves, "contentment and honor, satisfaction with who we are, what we have done and what we will do." Happiness involves the feeling that, in our own estimation and the estimation of those we love, we are a good enough person. It is hard, but possible, to be happy even if the people we live with don’t like us or treat us well. It is impossible to be happy, no matter how much we are loved by others, if we don’t like ourselves the way we are and if we are not trying to do anything about it.

Happiness comes from within. Pittman makes the point that if we expect and demand happiness to come from outside ourselves instead of from within, then we are likely to be angry and frustrated. Since one cannot be angry and happy at the same time, we will be unhappy.

Happiness is not a state of peace. Adversity and challenges test us and bring out inner resources and strength. Happiness is not the absence of pain or trouble but the calm self-assurance that we can deal with life and grow from it. People who confuse happiness with pleasure and pain don’t know to recognize what happiness is.

Happiness is giving up the narcissism of our youth and entering into a give-and-take awareness and connection with others: pleasure and pain. Maturity is noticing how what you do affects others and how it makes them feel.

Happiness is the freedom and the power to do "the right thing" of our own choosing and then doing it. It is sharing experiences, being connected with life and embracing the life cycle. He defines four central tasks of adults that will make us happy.

1. Know our parents’ lives. We need to understand our parents’ lives, why things happened the way they did during our childhood, what they felt and why they made the decisions they made. We need to understand them enough to forgive them so we can get rid of any victim thinking and also to forgive ourselves for our imperfect parenting. By doing this we can overcome a major hurdle in moving from the child generation to the adult generation.

2. Our function in life is to raise children. Pittman expands the word "children" to include children beyond our own biological children - the next generation of humankind. This is not a sacrifice of life but a fulfillment of our own lives. By raising children we become our own person and join the succession of generations that keeps us connected with all of life and human history. According to Pittman, unless we invest ourselves with children, or other adults who are raising children, we run the risk of being our own pampered child.

3. Happiness comes through family. We need a family to humble us, strip us of illusions, a place to give love, face disappointment, and to reveal ourselves just as we are. We need a place to belong - a place where we are accepted unconditionally. Pittman believes, "We need that sort of family a lot more than we need ideal love." Life long marriage is at the heart of family life.

4. Happiness comes from the genders learning, growing and cooperating with each other. Pittman feels we need to overcome the restrictions of our gender training and take on some of the characteristics of the opposite gender. We are incomplete and we need to expand our functional and emotional range beyond the bounds of stereotypical masculinity and femininity. This takes a lifetime.

Pittman feels that these main tasks of adulthood happen almost automatically as we raise our children, as we nurse our aging parents through the end of their lives, and as we survive the unending crises, disappointments, and revelations of holding on to a marriage for a lifetime.

Pittman adds to his list for happiness: brain chemistry, love, work, play, honor, honesty, manners, health and exercise, involvement with nature, simplicity, and embracing each phase of life as good and desirable.

Want to be happy? Grow up. Accept your responsibilities.