You Are Not Responsible for Other People’s Happiness.
There is a saying that many mothers know: You are only as happy as your least happy child.
This saying drew me in and held me captive long after my children were high school students with driving licenses and part-time jobs.
When I first heard it, I dismissed the implication that my happiness depended on my child’s happiness. The only person in charge of my happiness was me! If I felt miserable, I couldn’t blame them.
However, I somehow interpreted this message as meaning that it was my job to make sure they were happy. I honestly thought I was responsible for their happiness just as I was responsible for their health, safety, education, and so on. I took on the role of Chief Executive Officer of Happiness of these two, small, non-profit ‘businesses.’
Although I am blessed with two very grounded, drama-free children, now adults, I constantly worried if they were happy. They both had strong social circles, good grades, and a wide variety of after-school activities they loved. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still worried.
I would study their expressions, trying to see if anyone was miserable. If they were struggling with something—as all children do—I would try to provide ideas about how they could handle it. I would offer suggestions and advice. They would move on, sometimes feeling better, sometimes not, but either way, if they didn’t bounce back to complete joyfulness, I thought I’d failed.
I don’t like seeing anyone struggle or suffer. I try to be a good listener, and I genuinely care about others. As a natural teacher and coach, I love giving advice, guiding people, counseling them to be their best selves. With friends and clients, I knew even if I spoke until I was blue in the face, ultimately it was up to them how they responded.
Somehow, with my own children, I not only felt compelled to provide good counsel but also to guarantee that their happiness quotient was at 100%. In my effort to be supportive, I held myself responsible.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When my son was extremely ill, I was devastated, very far from anything remotely resembling happiness, but I worked even harder on my own emotions. How I felt was not as a result of how he felt, but what he was going through. As much as I worked on buoying his spirits, I kept a close check on my own. If I fell into deep unhappiness because he was—understandably—shattered, then I would be of no use to him.
If I had only been as happy as my least happy child, the only outcome would have been two deeply wretched people. So, each day, I took a deep breath and entered the hospital with a smile on my face, radiating positivity. I choose to be as close to happiness as I could. I looked at every positive angle: we lived 15 minutes from a world-renowned Pediatric Oncology hospital. We had excellent health insurance. I didn’t have to give up a job to care for my son.
Eventually, in calmer times, it dawned on me that I had it all wrong. I never, ever expect someone else or something else to make me happy, so why did I think my children expected me to ensure their happiness?
Maybe it was how I was raised, but I have never looked at someone and thought, “it is your duty to make sure I am happy.” I never purchase an item, make a change in my life, or take a trip, and think, “this is the thing that will magically ensure my happiness.”
I know one hundred percent for sure that we each have to find happiness within ourselves. There is no job, spouse, mansion, or pet that will give you the golden key to happiness. No matter what I am feeling, I only have myself to thank (or blame?) for the emotion.
I had done my children a disservice: they were more than capable of finding their own happiness. They were resilient and could put in the work—as we all have to do. Their struggles were not my path to walk—it was theirs. They needed to find their happiness. They did not need me to do it for them.
I could still guide and advise, but it was up to them to interpret my suggestions as they chose. I could probably influence them, but how they reacted and responded was entirely up to them, and the resultant emotion was under their control.
Once the light went on, I started taking this approach with friends and family. If they asked my advice, I would gladly make suggestions, listen, or provide material support, but how they ultimately felt—happy or sad—was in their hands. It had nothing to do with me.
It was enormously freeing to enter this new phase. No longer did I lie awake at night worrying that someone’s work bonus wasn’t as much as they hoped, or that a boss was unreasonable, or that their neighbors played loud music at two in the morning.
Now, I listen, empathize, and make suggestions, but then I step back. I remind myself that I have given my adult children all the tools to handle their problems and walk the (sometimes) tough road toward finding their own happiness. My work is done. I am not responsible for their happiness.
Once I embraced this concept, I found myself being a better listener. Instead of flipping into “how do I help them solve this” mode, I listen as closely as possible. They let me know if they want my advice or thoughts, and mostly they do. But, after I have done so, I let it go. I have complete trust that they will figure life out and find their happiness within.
We can all choose to be happy; it is no one’s responsibility except our own.