Project Happiness: How One Parent Inspired Optimism

Melissa Fay Greene’s adopted son was angry and depressed—until a science fair project they completed together turned his head around.

Project Happiness
Photograph by Russ and Reyn

In every decade, parents are surrounded by hype and anxiety. Don’t make mistakes! Don’t mess up the kids! But parents ought to be growing more relaxed rather than more panic-stricken, as the latest news from the geneticists is: The nature/nurture debate is over, and nurture has lost. It’s all genetics! Identical twins separated at birth and located 35 years later show up as matching curly-haired biology teachers in size-nine shoes and capris, living in Midwestern states, one married to a man named Steve and the other to a man whose middle name is Stephen, and they both like dachshunds!

A one-out-of-a-hundred-billion twist of DNA, slotted into place at the moment of conception, plots a child’s course. Except for one thing. According to the scientists, parenting seems to make a difference in a person’s sense of optimism.

If that’s the only bone they’re tossing us, I’ll take it. Happiness, hope, and a can-do spirit can wreak miracles.

My husband and I, married for 34 years, have nine children: four by birth and five by adoption. One of our sons by adoption arrived in Atlanta from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the summer of 2007, at age 13. A tall and gloomy fellow, Daniel had seen a lot of the worst that life can offer: a loving family splintered by HIV/AIDS, displacement from his village to an orphanage in the city, almost everything he’d known swept away. When, in our kitchen, his long narrow face lit up with laughter, it was a wonderful sight. But it was a brief one. His expression soon fell back to distaste. His first clearly enunciated English phrase was “Oh my God.”

“Oh my God” meant: This is a total disaster.

One afternoon that summer, I came home from the market and found him sitting on a blue Adirondack chair on the front patio, within the lacy shadows of the Japanese maple. He was curved into a posture of grief, cradling his face within his long-fingered hands.

“What’s wrong?!” I cried, setting down paper sacks of peaches, corn, and onions.

He looked up and said, “My life. Oh my God,” and returned his face to his hands.

“What’s wrong with your life?”

He looked up again with haggard eyes. “Helen,” he said, naming his new younger sister, an ebullient and sparkly girl of 11, “will not stop laughing.”

Contemplating where he’d been, the bleak future that had once loomed before him—homelessness in one of the poorest nations on earth—and the opportunities that were spread before him now, I couldn’t think of a reply. I collected the produce and went into the house. He’s not used to the presence of a lighthearted girl, I thought. Even the sound of feminine laughter rubs him the wrong way. Later I considered that the sound of merriment itself, regardless of gender, offended him as untrue. Laughter did not strike him as one of the world’s authentic sounds.

Next: “I watched him absorb these happiness studies with keen interest” »

project happiness
Courtesy of Melissa Fay Greene
Siblings Daniel, 14, Fisseha, 14, Helen, 12, and Jesse, 13, relax after their 2008 bar/bat mitzvahs.

And he bore grudges; he could nurture a small kernel of resentment for months. His bony shoulders seemed knotted with strife. He was an athletic boy, but his movements were jittery rather than lithe. From afar, you might have thought you were seeing a vexed middle-aged man in a hurry, the bony elbows pumping, the face slightly averted in preparation for bad news.

Then it was time for his first-ever science fair project in his first American middle school.

As the mother of nine, I’ve done more than my share of science projects. Not only have I wrestled home the tall three-paneled backboards and the stick-on letters, but I’ve been there beside the seedling that withered and the seedling that grew, the bread scrap that produced mold and the bread scrap that produced even more mold, the pea plant that listened to Mozart and the pea plant consigned to silence.

Our new son’s science project happened to be assigned when articles about positive psychology, the “science of happiness,” appeared in the news. For the past few decades, psychologists like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had been questioning the focus on mental illness and depression in their field. Why not study happiness, they asked, and strategize with people to increase their portion of it? I proposed the Science of Happiness to my grumpy son for his science project. OK, he shrugged. He knew nothing of Mozart and pea plants, anyway.

Together we researched and assembled the words for his paper. “There are things that people believe lead to happiness, but scientists say they do not lead to happiness,” he/we wrote. “The first is money. For poor people, money can increase happiness. For middle class and above, happiness does not increase with more money, not even from winning the lottery.”

Together we read that individuals have “set points” along a spectrum of contentment to dissatisfaction. While brilliant surprises (like winning a lottery) or tragedies (the death of a loved one, the loss of health, the amputation of limbs) reset a person’s mood for many months, in time the person drifts back to his or her set point. The good news is that with the right skills and practice, people can scroll their set points upward, higher on the happiness scale.

And together Daniel and I learned that the path to happiness is lined with friends, family, and experiences rather than with objects, even the most expensive luxuries. “If you are choosing between jewelry and a trip to the beach, start packing!” he/we wrote.

I didn’t know if my somber son had been born pessimistic or if the tragedies of his young life had shaped him. But I watched him absorb these studies with keen interest. “You can’t just decide to be happier one day and instantly become happier,” he wrote. “You have to practice. One exercise is named ‘three blessings.’ Every day, write down three things that went well, and you will feel less depressed three months later and six months later …

“In conclusion,” he wrote, “to become happier, a person should think of good things, have good friends, spend good time with his family, and be grateful for what he has.”

Next: “I want to be the person who helps other people to feel happy” »

Prom
Courtesy of Melissa Fay Greene
The author (and proud mom) with Daniel before his senior prom, May 2013.

He shyly presented this material to his science class and was startled by applause. Kids clapped him on the back and said, “Good work!” He/we got an A! Two years later, in ninth grade, he revisited this subject in more depth and felt validated again by an A and by the interest of his classmates. By then, I believe, he’d begun practicing what he preached.

One night last week, my tall and relaxed 11th-grade son unexpectedly joined me on an evening walk around the block. There was something on his mind. Six feet tall, he amiably slowed his pace to allow me to keep up. “Mom,” he said, “I am deciding what to be in life.” We’d discussed this recently in preparation for a visit to his high school adviser. “I want to be the person who helps other people to feel happy. Last year a boy from school killed himself, you remember? He was sad because his girlfriend dumped him. I want to be the person who tells him, ‘You can be happy. Do not kill yourself.’ I can do this? This is a job?”

“Yes, this is a job,” I said.

“What is this name?”

“Well, psychologist or therapist,” I said.

“Yes, that is what I want to be.”

Oh my God, I was thinking.

Not, Oh my God, as in, This is a total disaster.

Oh my God, as in, Parents do matter. Look what we have done together.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest