Ch. 9: Happiness, Success, and the 5 Stages of a Child’s Development

By George Beinhorn, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, California.

I don’t read the papers much, but I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee some years ago that fairly begged to be disbelieved. Here’s an excerpt:

In a Journal of Medical Ethics article titled “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder,” Liverpool University psychologist Richard P. Bentall argues that the so‑called syndrome of happiness is a diagnosable mood disturbance that should be included in standard taxonomies of mental illness such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Happiness, as Bentall states in his abstract, is “statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system.” (In this regard, as Bentall later notes, happiness resembles other psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.)

The author of the Bee article, Maggie Scarf, a New Republic contributing editor, related Dr. Bentall’s suggestion “that the term ‘happiness’ be removed from future editions of the major diagnostic manuals, to be replaced by the formal description ‘major affective disorder, pleasant type.’”

When I read the article aloud to a friend, she promptly doubled over with major affective disorder, pleasant type. “That’s such amazing cock‑a‑doo!” she howled. “It’s so carefully reasoned — yet it’s completely incredible!”

The Practice of Happiness

It is nutty-cakes. And yet, is there anything actually wrong with using scientific methods to study happiness? After all, it’s what the spiritual explorers of all ages have done — they’ve studied happiness in the laboratory of human bodies, hearts, and minds and kept tidy notes on what worked and didn’t. (See Chapter 4, “Ancient Secrets of Happiness & Success.”)

For most of us, happiness isn’t a “mood disturbance” – it’s the prize we’re seeking. And if we can get a little more with the help of scientific order and method, all the better.

The spiritual researchers realized that the single underlying desire that drives our actions is a longing to experience greater happiness, and to escape from suffering.

Albert Einstein, ever a keen observer of the human scene, stated it this way:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves. (From an essay, “Cosmic Religious Feeling.”)

Because the world’s spiritual traditions have made the longest recorded scientific study of happiness, what they say may be worth hearing, in these times of pandemic discontent.

After all, their approach is practical. They tell us, for example, about the five instruments through which we can experience greater happiness: body, heart, will, mind, soul. Our happiness, they say, increases as we learn to use each tool “expansively.” (More on “expansion” in a moment.) Thus, the most important time in our lives for learning to be happy is when we’re growing up, as each tool in turn becomes the main focus of our development.

To review: from birth to age six, an infant’s primary developmental taks is to become familiar with its body and senses. From six to twelve, feelings come to the fore — this is a time when children are especially receptive to learning through the arts — through stories, music, theater, art, and dance – the “media of feeling.”

From twelve to eighteen, teenagers welcome challenges to their will power in preparation for independent adult life. And at around eighteen, young people become fascinated with the life of the mind, engaging in late-night discussions of science, philosophy, politics, and the arts.

Finally, at about twenty-four, many people experience life events that may precede a spiritual awakening.

As each tool takes center stage, the others don’t simply fade away. Thus, while a toddler is primarily concerned with its body and senses, it won’t hesitate to express its feelings — with the volume turned up! Nor do the stages begin and end exactly on our sixth, twelfth, eighteenth, and twenty-fourth birthdays; the transitions are gradual.

Why did nature settle upon this particular scheme? In his insightful book, Education for Life, J. Donald Walters explains how each stage prepares the child for the ones that follow. Thus, feeling comes before will power because feeling is the faculty that enables us to tell right from wrong. Before we can use our will power intelligently, with awareness of others, we need to develop the ability to feel their realities. Walters laments the ruinous consequences of cramming young children’s minds with facts, at the expense of developing their capacity to feel sensitively.

Similarly, each stage fulfills the one that came before. Thus, feeling motivates us to act, and will power provides the energy to act on our feelings. Unless we want something strongly enough, we won’t muster the energy to achieve it.

Will power, in turn, finds its fulfillment in wisdom, which tells us which actions will make us happy, and which will not. And wisdom is fulfilled in Spirit. In Self-realization, we realize that true wisdom and joy come from a higher Source within.

The history of education reveals that in ancient Greece and Rome, and throughout the Middle Ages and Enlightenment, the six-year stages were recognized as natural phases of a child’s growth. Thus appropriate teaching methods were devised for each stage, and schools were roughly divided into the equivalents of our modern elementary school (six to twelve), junior and senior high (twelve to eighteen), and college (eighteen to twenty-four).

Expanding Awareness Equals Joy

The spiritual teachings of the ages tell us that our happiness increases as we learn to use our five human instruments “expansively.” Like most abstractions, “expansion” is most easily understood through examples.

Let’s look at what happens when we begin a fitness program.

After the first two or three weeks, we find that we are feeling happier and more alive. Why? Because the exercising body has begun to generate energy that spills over to nourish our feelings, will, and mind, expanding their range and force. Expanding our awareness through one “tool,” the body, has influenced the others. Good actions spread their effects — as do “bad” ones. It’s now well-known that negative, contractive attitudes have adverse mental, emotional, and physical consequences.

People tend to specialize in one, or perhaps two, of the “tools of expansion.” Thus, some people go more by feeling, while others tend to “lead” with their will power or mind. The spiritual teachings encourage us to go with our strengths, while working to correct any imbalances.

In many natural processes, the “tools of happiness” tend to appear in the same sequence as in a child’s development. When we fall in love, for example, the first attraction is often, though not invariably, physical. We see a person across the room whose appearance attracts us, and our feelings become aroused. We form a volition to act on our feelings, and we walk over and strike up a conversation. The mind probes for information: What interests do we share? Does he like children? And if we’re wise, we’ll consult a higher guidance before entering this important new life venture. We’ve passed through the five tools in order: body, feeling, will, mind, soul.

When I ran ultramarathons, I noticed that the tools tended to show up in the same natural order. The first hour or two were for the body, as my heart, legs, and lungs found a rhythm and began to generate a flow of energy. The next hour was for the heart — cheerful conversations would spring up among the runners. As the body tired, will power came to the fore — it was time to focus attention and not waste energy on distractions.

Farther along, it became important to apply the mind to questions of logistics: How can I pace myself to make it to the next aid station? How can I deal with this blister? Finally, if I succeeded in using the tools wisely, I would enjoy a wonderful inner freedom. I became a very simple person, free from distractions, worries, and restless thoughts, living wholly in the present moment.

Talking with other runners, I realized that many experienced a similar sequence in the longer rhythms of their careers.

At the start, the major issues tended to be about the body — how to train, which shoes to wear, how to treat an injury, what to eat and drink, etc.

Then, as the body grew fit, feelings took center stage. The feeling phase is rich with the romance of running, as we explore longer distances, seek interesting courses, and absorb the inspiration of sports role models.

Later, we begin to crave challenges to our will. We may take up speedwork, compete with ourselves to run faster times, and enter more difficult races. As we pass through the five phases, we find that the tools we need for the next stage tend to show up in uncanny ways.

After the will power phase, runners often become intrigued by the life of the mind. They learn to plan their training wisely, perhaps using a heart monitor.

Finally, there may be a period where the overriding concerns are spiritual, where all of the tools are merged in a quest for inner harmony. We seek a fulfillment that comes by “running in beauty,” our activities balanced in a careful synchrony.

It helps to be aware of the five stages of a run, and the natural sequence of a runner’s career.

As with running, so too with educating a young child. To help each child in the best possible way, we must first understand the child’s unique gifts and apply the most appropriate methods at each stage to prepare them for the stage that follows.

More than we may realize, each tool is a world unto itself, with its own wonderful strengths and rewards. In my life, I’ve had the good fortune to enter two of these worlds as a relative newcomer: first, when I started an exercise program, and later when I spent several years working to open my heart.

In the first case, I was overjoyed to discover the world of the fit body. I had never been in good physical condition, and now at age twenty-six I could run for miles barefoot on the beach, probing with fingers of consciousness into the rich inner world of a body that glowed with health and energy. How fulfilling and expansive it was, to enter this spacious new world for the first time!

Later, as my heart began to open, I was delighted to discover a vast inner world of feeling. I became aware that there were issues in my life for which the heart held answers that were hidden from the rational mind. I gained a renewed respect for the world of feeling in which women spend much of their lives. Standing in line at the bank or supermarket, I could quietly enjoy watching women working together, appreciating their communion of feeling.

The System Is Rigged

It all sounds so straightforward — simply use the tools expansively, and happiness is sure to follow, rather like remembering to brush our teeth in the morning. But, in real life, cultivating expansive attitudes turns out to be a challenge. That’s because the opposite urge, contraction, is a temptation for us also.

Life places essentially the same choice continually before us: will we use our bodies wisely, or abuse them? Our hearts, to love or to hate? Our minds, to be wise, or merely clever? Our spiritual yearnings, to aspire to the heights, or to dabble in psychic trivialities? History — ours and the world’s — is the story of the eternal struggle between these opposing forces in human nature.

Also, the theory is simple, but the details seldom are. We’ve been given all of the tools we need to achieve happiness and success — or so it seems. The trouble is, if we rely too exclusively on our purely human resources, we sooner or later find ourselves coming up against their limitations.

The five tools of expansion embody wonderful expertise, yet their specialization can trip us. When this happens, we can still find answers by looking beyond those merely human instruments. Happily, we can use the tools to tap into an awareness that is fathomlessly wise and loving, and that has our best interests always at heart.

This is what an expansive Education for Life is about: harmonizing the children’s environment and guiding their activities in ways that will bring each of them individually the greatest success and joy at each step of their journey.

George Beinhorn received his B.A. and M.A. at Stanford University at a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Quad.

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