Harvard researchers asked 10,000 middle and high school students the following question:
“What is most important to you? Achieving at a high level, happiness (defined, in part, as feeling good most of the time) or caring for others?”
48 percent of students selected high achievement as their top priority; 30 percent chose happiness. Only 22 percent placed caring for others at the top of their list.
This is unsettling. Of course achievement, success and hard work are important values, but not at the expense of the greater good…whether we’re helping another student while we’re studying to ace the same exam, taking care of a sick relative when we’re exhausted, or passing the ball during a basketball game when we’d really rather take the shot ourselves.
When the balance shifts too far toward our own interests, we not only compromise our relationships, we’re also at risk of being cruel, disrespectful, ungenerous, and dishonest. When children don’t prioritize caring, they’re also less motivated to develop social and emotional skills, such as empathy, needed to treat people well day to day.
Parents may be partially to blame. The study highlighted a “rhetoric/reality gap” between what parents say they value and what they actually communicate to their children through their own actions. Many parents don’t “walk the walk.” They might say they prioritize developing caring and honest children but when push comes to shove, they prioritize achievement and their child’s immediate happiness.
Lobbying to give their child more attention in the classroom, time on the playing field, or a bigger part in the school play are common ways parents go overboard. Few parents would blink an eye at padding the all-important resume with exaggerated community service or summer job hours.
It occurs in more subtle ways too:
It’s the steady, subtle diet of messages that children receive. Perhaps parents allow a child to quit a team without considering the obligation to that community, or they don’t promote reaching out to the lonely kid on the playground or at a party. It goes on.
And the irony is this: The intense focus on achievement and happiness can make children not only less caring, but also less happy.
As the researchers highlight, putting the common good before one’s own is essential for any healthy civil society. It is also essential for mental health. Contributing to the well-being of others and doing one’s best to make the world a better place reinforce a sense of purpose and meaning.
Be a model of goodness. Odds are, greatness will follow.