Questions and Answers

Q: Aren't some people naturally more cheerful than others? What can a parent be expected to do about natural temperament?

A: Yes, there is evidence that some people are born more cheerful or optimistic. This isn't surprising, considering that body chemistry affects our moods. But... well, there are two big "buts":

First, it isn't easy to take into account all the factors affecting a person's mood. For example, if one of your kids tends to get whiny just before dinner time, that doesn't necessarily mean he is your grouchiest child. It could be that this child's moods are more affected by hunger. Another example would be a child who is more easily frustrated by certain kinds of tasks, presenting her parents with the challenges of recognizing that what looks like bad temper is really frustration, then figuring out what it is that frustrates her and how to help her cope.

Second, having a less cheerful temperament doesn't automatically condemn people to unhappy lives. They can learn to maximize their capacity for enjoyment and find other sources of life satisfaction that are based on their particular strengths, and their parents can help them learn how to do so. For example, a child who is always curious and asks lots of questions may find fulfillment as a scientist or explorer. The caring, generous child may grow into a passionate advocate for social justice.

Q: The search for meaning is often depicted as some grand experience—six months in a cave, climbing a mountain, crossing a desert in your bare feet. How can simpler, more ordinary pleasures contribute to a meaningful life?

A: On a December day twenty-odd years ago, my 3-year-old and I made a gumdrop wreath. Chatting and laughing as we used toothpicks to attach the gumdrops to a circular base, we tasted each color.

When we were almost done, she sighed and said dreamily, "Life is good!"

This simple pleasure was more complicated than it seems at first glance. We had fun fitting different-sized gumdrops onto the base like pieces of a puzzle, and there was a warm undercurrent of affection as we worked together.

But the sensory pleasure was certainly important, and that wasn't entirely simple, either: Quickly gobbling ten gum drops of any one flavor wouldn't have been nearly as much fun as stretching out the experience, slowly nibbling at and comparing the different flavors. Without planning to, I gave my daughter an important lesson in savoring a simple pleasure. It was an example of the proverbial advice to linger and smell the roses.

Q: We hear a lot of complaints (some of them valid) about too much hedonism and materialism in everyday life, but there is also a strong puritanical streak in our culture that distrusts pleasure. Just think about the phrase "sinfully delicious." How can I protect my kids from picking up this same puritanical streak?

tt Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.

—Peter Elbow, writer

A: One way or another, we've all heard these messages. Let's look at some examples:

"Avoid pleasure to prevent overindulgence." Please give me some bathwater—I have a baby to throw away! We can teach our kids moderation. For example, "Are you sure you want a second slice of cake? Last time it gave you a tummyache."

"Pleasure-seeking is selfish and self-centered." It can be; but if pleasure-seeking isn't interfering with any obligations, then it's not selfish. Also, pleasure is often more fun when it involves sharing or cooperation. Think of waterskiing—somebody has to be at the wheel while somebody's on the skis.

Every time you say something like, "I can't wait till everybody else gets home so they can hear this music," you are modeling the fun of sharing pleasure. On the other hand, you will want to help your children understand that we don't all enjoy the same things. Often, there is some reciprocity involved: "I won't drag you into my game of Scrabble, and you won't pester me to go for a walk right now."

"Because pleasure doesn't last, we shouldn't bother with it." This line of thought, embedded deep in the Protestant ethic and other ascetic religious traditions, contrasts "bad," transient, earthly pleasures with "good," supposedly eternal pleasures. It is closely related to a question often asked of the nonreligious: "If you think you will someday cease to exist, why even bother getting up in the morning?"

Yes, life itself is transient, and the humanist response is to treasure life all the more for that very reason. In valuing life, we value what makes life good. The fragility of a spiderweb sparkling with morning dew doesn't make it any less beautiful.

If we understand that sensory pleasures are only one part of a good life, it's enough that pleasure is good as long as it lasts. And, we can help our children learn to recognize which activities give them most pleasure, as well as helping them be open to enjoying new experiences.

Pleasures are the sugars in the feast of life. They are enjoyable in themselves, and often handy as a quick energy source, but we also need more substantial sources of satisfaction. "Flow" is an emotional experience that more strongly sustains the feeling that life is meaningful.

Q: What is "flow," and how does it contribute to a worthwhile life?

A: Flow is a state of being we've all experienced, although many of us don't necessarily have a name for it, or know what has been learned about it in scientific studies. By identifying positive emotions in categories more specific than "happiness" and investigating which of these emotions people experience during various activities, researchers have characterized the type of experience called "flow." Some familiar examples from daily life will make it easier to grasp a description of what "flow" is:

• A musician rehearsing just before a concert.

• A toddler focused on learning to walk.

• A hobbyist concentrating on putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

• Friends lost in intense conversation.

Flow is not as simple as "being happy." It is about being present in the moment, thinking neither of past nor future, attending fully to the activity at

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