One of the main challenges facing teens and young adults today is resisting the message that happiness can be found outside of oneself—in money, material possessions, fame, popularity, or other worldly achievements. There is so much suffering because of that idea. Very few people live with an awareness that happiness comes from within.
Adolescence: wrong choices and wrong company
My own journey to the right understanding about happiness, though in some ways atypical, presented many of the same challenges young people experience today. The main difference was that when I was growing up, my father was in the military and our family moved around – I lived in Europe and Asia as well as in the United States.
When I was very young, my family was my main environment and, even if we moved, I felt safe surrounded by their love and support. Adolescence is rarely easy, and for me it brought the usual confusion, uncertainty and concern about self-image. There were some wrong choices and wrong company, but I had the good karma to avoid the really harmful delusions of looking for answers in drugs, sex, and alcohol. (I remember arguing with friends about drugs – telling them that I didn’t want to be less conscious, I wanted to be more conscious.) Mostly, I remember it as a time of intense discomfort with myself. I couldn’t make the self I felt inwardly match the self that I saw in the mirror.
At some point in my youth I became convinced that moving to a new environment was an opportunity to present a new, improved version of me, and that I could leave behind the things I didn’t like about myself. It was an optimistic attitude, but every time I tried to change I discovered that inwardly I was the same. Wearing different clothes or trying to be something other than what felt natural to me just made me feel silly and self-conscious. It became clear that my inner challenges would always be with me. That was the beginning of understanding that true happiness had to do with consciousness, not outward circumstances.
Anyone can wash dishes or move chairs
Like most adolescents, I looked to the people around me to understand how to be happy. I could feel that there was more to life than the short-lived thrills of outward experiences; I could feel goodness in people and expansiveness in nature. Within myself I experienced a love and awareness that was much bigger than anything I could see in the people and circumstances around me. I didn’t have strong religious or spiritual role models, so it is understandable that I didn’t look for answers in that direction. But I was surrounded by very strong examples of selfless service.
Because I was shy, offering to serve was a way for me to feel secure in new or challenging situations. Anyone can wash dishes or move chairs. Being useful in simple ways doesn’t require great talent, just willingness. Many of my happiest memories involve experiences that put me in a place of self-forgetfulness. Anything that caused me to lapse into self-involvement felt superficial and small compared to the expansiveness I felt in service.
From a young age I planned to be a nurse—it was the only life that made sense to me—and I read all the books at the library about nurses who dedicated their lives to caring for others. There were many experiences of serving in Girl Scouts, as a hospital volunteer, and in YMCA and Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camps.
I was learning that happiness comes in self-forgetfulness and in being true to my inner, expansive self. Finding a true teacher in my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, brought the pieces together and enabled me to go beyond my budding personal philosophy into a deeper understanding of a universal truth: happiness comes from within.
We choose to be miserable or happy
Today, as a teacher in the Ananda Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon it is my joy to be part of a school that offers the understanding and skills young people need to find true fulfillment. The Portland school is part of Ananda’s Education for Life system, which is based on principles taught by Paramhansa Yogananda and set forth in Swami Kriyananda’s book, Education for Life (EFL).
Swami Kriyananda explains that most modern education was developed with material success as the goal. The EFL system, on the other hand, is founded on the principle that what people really want from life is not the mere symbols of happiness, but happiness itself, a state of inner fulfillment not dependent on outward circumstances. According to Yogananda, we all have the power to choose happiness. “Events are neutral,” he tells us. “Whether they appear happy or sad is due entirely to the attitude of the mind.”
In the EFL elementary grades, we try to help children become aware that happiness is a choice, and that they can make choices that move their energy towards expansion and happiness rather than towards pain and suffering.
“You can knock it down, if you want”
A typical example involved a young girl, age 6 or 7, in our Portland school who frequently found life and school challenging, and usually blamed the difficulties on others. Gradually we helped her to understand that no matter what happened, it was her own choice to be miserable or happy.
A revealing moment came when her mother overheard her “instructing” her four-year-old brother that he had the choice to be happy or sad. She used as an example an incident her brother had actually witnessed—the time she had gone to her room in a huff after being disciplined by her father, but then later decided she’d rather choose to be happy.
Another instance involved a child, age 7 or 8, with an overblown sense of drama; he became very loud and expressive when things didn’t go his way. Any little thing could turn into a crisis.
One day, after he had focused a great deal of energy building a tower out of blocks, a younger child came and knocked it down. He was so stunned that he didn’t cry. The teacher immediately came over and helped the younger child express how much fun it is to knock things down, but she also encouraged him to ask permission before he knocked down someone else’s creation. The older boy (to everyone’s amazement) still didn’t yell or cry – he simply started building the tower again.
When he finished, he cheerfully announced to the younger student: “You can knock it down if you want!” This was a real victory for him, and an important step toward learning to choose happiness.
Years of hard financial stress
When my husband and I decided to homeschool our three children, there was no EFL school in Portland. But I was then a Yogananda disciple and a student of his teachings. Intuitively, I used many EFL principles within the home and in teaching our children.
I recently asked my two younger children (ages 13 and 17) whether they ever thought their happiness came from outside themselves. They readily agreed that happiness depends on inner consciousness, not on material possessions or other worldly achievements. Surprisingly, however, my son (age 17) recalled some years of very hard financial stress (which, of course, my husband and I had tried to keep from the children) and remembered thinking, during that time, that everything would be okay if we just had a lot of money.
I also remember feeling the same way. That period of financial stress extended over a long period of time and eventually brought important karmic lessons. But at the time I struggled, not always successfully, to stay calm. I was still fairly new on the path, with young children, and meditation was sporadic. However, by clinging to the Guru, I always knew that the crisis we were facing, though extremely challenging, would eventually pass.
My son’s memory of the financial concerns, and my obvious tension about it, opened the door to a wonderful discussion. I discussed with my two younger children how hard it is to maintain your inner happiness during times of crisis, if you haven’t already made a deep commitment to living that way all the time. The challenges I faced in trying to hang onto inner happiness and peace of mind when conditions were difficult show that mere belief in the principle is not enough. We need to make a serious commitment to living consciously in that reality, day by day, so that it becomes our natural way of being.
The worldly message is flawed
One point my children agree on is that their father and I have given them strong examples of selfless service. Today they all serve happily wherever they can. Just as I did when growing up, they too have experienced the joy of serving others and forgetting the little self. In the EFL curriculum, service is an integral part of the curriculum for all ages, but is particularly emphasized for teens.
By experiencing inner joy in service to others, young people begin to understand that the worldly message of outward fulfillment is flawed. They become aware that the pursuit of happiness begins and ends in the same place: within their own self. To discover at a young age the infinite source of happiness is a deep blessing that can save them from years of suffering.