by Dr. Aaron Cooper,

The topic of happiness has made an impressive showing in the media sweepstakes this season, edged out only by presidential politics and Paris Hilton’s latest escapades. Happiness authors have been crowding the airwaves like a traffic jam, while across the Internet, bloggers weigh in daily with suggestions for creating our much-desired moments of personal bliss.

As a psychologist, I’m afraid that so much media attention encourages something that’s troubled me for years: parents’ preoccupation with their children’s happiness. Over the past two decades, I just want my kids to be happy has become mom and dad’s fondest wish; I hear it everywhere. Several years ago, I surveyed 100 middle school students, asking what they thought their parents wanted most for them: that they be smart, successful, happy, or good. Seventy percent chose “happy.”

I believe the focus on happiness has gotten out of hand. I’d rather our youth were learning the paradox behind it all: to find happiness, you’ve got to let it go. It can’t be planned or grasped and especially not purchased. It’s always just a side-effect, a by-product of living life in certain ways. Research has revealed those ways—the key ingredients that lead to true contentment. Like cultivating a sense of gratitude and an optimistic outlook. Enjoying close relationships and meaningful pursuits. Engaging as much as possible in acts of loving kindness. These are the things for parents to emphasize, rather than happiness itself.

In my counseling office, I’ve consoled too many youngsters wracked with guilt and shame over their inability to be cheerier than they are. They think they’re a disappointment to their happiness-obsessed parents, and sad to say, they’re often right. I’ve listened to teens railing against teachers who just won’t cater to their every whim, the way their parents do at home. And I’ve witnessed kids lacking the resilience to face ordinary challenges because mom and dad have shielded them from so many moments of unhappiness, those necessary encounters with adversity that build resilience and strengthen our children’s emotional muscles.

We seem to be forgetting that happiness is never on the menu. It’s up to us to order wisely, selecting the dishes that will have us licking our lips and relishing a sliver of pleasure and satisfaction. Happiness isn’t on life’s menu either. It’s the job of parents when kids are young to serve up the right attitudes and encourage the right habits. That’s how our sons and daughters will come to feast on true contentment. But first, let’s retire I just want my kids to be happy.