How to Help Your Kids Find Happiness Through Goodness

This essay was contributed by our Luminary Dr. Vivienne Ming.

Try this quick quiz: If your child could only be one of the following, which would you choose: (a) Rich (b) Smart (c) Happy (d) Good

Many of you may have seen this classic question — it’s really more thought experiment than quiz — but if you haven’t, take a moment and reflect.

Now that you’ve had a moment to think about it, I’m sure most of you plan to select (e) “All of the Above” (you cheaters). The point of the quiz, however, is to ask what is wealth or intelligence or simple happiness without good. What is the luxury, for which so many of us have worked so hard, to pass on wealth, opportunity, and experiences if they are passed to a life with no use for them? Who is the ​person you want your child to be?

Let’s be clear: the person who made this quiz was a sadistic jerk. I spend more than enough of my waking hours obsessing over my bad parenting without needing to be reminded how shallow I am. I travel around the world, far from my kids, and in my precious time home with them I’m distracted and demanding and uniformly, unforgivably human. But I didn’t inflict this quiz on you to evoke thoughts of your child carrying the burdens of the world. I ​want you to cheat. “All of the Above” is an entirely legitimate choice, and achieving it starts with “Good.” Even more crucially though, “Good” starts with you.

So now I need to talk through two huge things (thanks for indulging me): what is good and why you? Let’s start with the first. “Good” is an easy word to throw around but it’s not really clear what you’re throwing. My particular compass is the encouragement from my father to “live a life of substance.” After many dissolute and desperate years, I eventually took this to mean living a life that makes others’ lives better. Yet, I’m sure that there are many people in this world, right here in this country for that matter, who would deny my fundamental humanity, much less my “goodness.” So I’m going to stick with what I know as a scientist. (Yes, pity my two poor kids that their moms are both cognitive scientists. We absolutely do run experiments on them. We might even write a book about it. It will help to defray the cost of all the inevitable therapy.)

Rather than try and define good, let’s start with some related constructs (i.e., things made up by scientists). ​Motivation has a strong relationship to good. Without motivation, good is just an intention that’s never realized. In fact, motivation is usually how we interpret an act; you aren’t truly doing good if someone is making you do it. That sort of incentive is called exogenous motivation and it’s made up of all of the praise and punishment, candy and timeouts we fall back on as parents. By contrast, endogenous motivation comes from within. Kids follow their endogenous motivation despite the praise and punishment, not because of it. Research on motivation is very clear: endogenous motivation is a strong predictor of positive life outcomes (including education attainment and income, but also health and happiness). Exogenous motivation is a negative predictor. So many of the tools of parenting, all of the rewards and “consequences,” impart the wrong kind of motivation. Much of it is unavoidable in any practical life, but overused it slowly trains kids (and adults for that matter) to seek those exogenous rewards and shy away from disapproval. “All of the Above” requires more than that.

Happiness hardly seems like a facet of good since that damn quiz makes you choose between them. This assumes happiness is how you feel with a belly full of Cheetos and a night of reality TV (wait, this is a blog on luxury living; how about a palate suffused with ankimo and a backstage pass to ​Hamilton). Psychologists call that hedonic happiness. In contrast, have you ever felt like you truly made a difference in the world, or even just reflected with a smile on those little daily victories? That’s eudaimonic happiness. For years, health psychologists wondered why happy people didn’t seem to live any longer than sad people. Then they dissociated happiness into these distinct experiences and found that hedonic happiness is a negative predictor of health outcomes (too many Cheetos?) while eudaimonic is positive. Good might be hard to define, but imagine an endogenously motivated, eudaimonically happy life versus one lived to please others while finding moments of indulgent respite.

I’ll touch on two more concepts before returning the question of “you:” mindset and purpose. Mindset is a now somewhat famous construct developed by Carol Dweck at Stanford University. As with motivation and happiness, mindset is also based on a deep dichotomy. A fixed mindset means a person believes they cannot change. They cannot improve. Failure is evidence that you are intrinsically a failure. For someone with a growth mindset, however, anyone can change. Failure is learning. A growth mindset is another of those strong predictors of positive life outcomes. Importantly, this is as true for the parent as the child. If you don’t believe your child can improve, you’ll also give up.

Finally, purpose. Every one of these constructs has developed into entire fields of scientific study, and the research shows that having a purpose that’s bigger than yourself — not your career or a more luxurious house — is another of those powerful predictors. Simply introducing the idea of a bigger purpose to young students improves their academic performance. There is also important research showing that a purpose needn’t be thought of as some singular thing for which you were destined. It can be constructed and grow over time. One interesting question then is, does it need to be “good” (yes I know we’re getting a little circular here) as long as it’s big? There substantial research that says yes, though if it’s a choice…why not?

So you’ve shown up at a blog about luxury living, and I’ve just been prattling on about good and bad and psychology and generally been insufferable. This is where it comes back to you. “All of the Above” starts with good: wealth, intelligence, and happiness are all predicted by (likely causally driven by) endogenous motivation, eudaimonic happiness, growth mindset, and purpose. How do you pass on those qualities to your children when punishment and rewards (exogenous motivation) undermine them? As I said in a TED talk, “Sorry Tiger Moms, but it’s you as role models, not dictators, that predict the life outcomes of your children.” It turns out it’s all about you.

I’ve frequently been asked, “How can I be a better parent?” My thoroughly unhelpful answer is always, “Be a better person.” Unhelpful though it may be on the surface (as with most things, the real challenge is connecting our ambitions to our actions), this is a huge component of life outcomes. Most of the directive things we do as parents are negatively associated with positive outcomes. It is who we are, or perhaps more meaningfully, who our children perceive us to be that guides them. Take the amazing work of Raj Chetty, an economist at Stanford and a leader of The ​Equality of Opportunity Project​. He has repeatedly shown how engaged parents are the core of children’s life outcomes. Fancy private schools and obligatory extracurricular activities add very little, perhaps even nothing to this. When I advise Fortune 500 companies on talent and innovation I tell them, “Stop trying to align your employees with your company, figure out how to make your company meaningful to your employees.” We need the same at home. Our kids learn meaning from us.

If you added up all of the time I spent on an airplane in 2016 and made it a single trip, I’d have spent a little over 3 weeks circling the earth (some of those trips certainly felt that way). I’m sure some of you flew even more than that. That’s time away from family — time you cannot get back — but it needn’t be wasted time. I have begun writing my kids while I travel. My son is 9 and my daughter is 5, so he reads my messages to her. I write to tell them why I’m away from them. Why this trip is more important than they are. That may sound like an unnecessarily harsh way of looking at it, but I guarantee that’s how your child sees it. So I explain the work I do and why it is so important, what it brings our family, and how it helps the world. I share honest stories of how hard it is to be away from them and of what it means to the people whom I help. I’m afforded the superlative privilege of making a difference in the world; I make certain that my children understand everything that means. It is worth more than anything I could ever buy them.

I have some new destinations in my travel plans this year: Monaco, Istanbul, and Singapore, among dozens of other invitations. Though I always ask my hosts for relatively modest accommodations (please donate the difference!), I’ll still experience a life that’s only a dream for most others. I have the freedom to pay others to be responsible adults so I don’t have to be, so that I can spend my days creating and inventing in cities around the world. But for this mom the greatest luxury in life is the opportunity to be the person you wish your children to be.

Named one of Inc. Magazine’s “Top 10 Women to Watch in Tech,” Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist, and entrepreneur whose guiding mission is to maximize human potential, from neurons to toddlers to whole economies. Vivienne has co-founded several companies. The most recent, Socos, combines machine learning and cognitive neuroscience to improve children’s  life outcomes. Vivienne researches, writes, and speaks extensively on issues of AI, the future of work, diversity, health technology, innovation, and education.



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