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What if we lived by the creed, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Goodness?"

University of Kansas sophomore Jordan Stiers recently found herself faced with a question we would all love to answer, “What would I do with $10,000?” I was intrigued when I read a Tweet that Ms. Stiers intended to use $10,000 to “pay it forward” to her grandmother. At the KU annual basketball kick-off rally, participants pick a non-basketball-player proxy to attempt a half court shot. Ms. Stiers selected Brennan Bechard, Director of Basketball Operations at KU, whom she had witnessed sink the shot a year before. This year, he did it again, winning Ms. Stiers $10,000!

In The Washington Post, she said, “I was in shock. I didn’t really know how to express myself. The crowd went wild when it happened, and the first person I thought of was my Nana.” Ms. Stiers’ grandmother raised her and her siblings from a very young age, all on her own, at a point when the five of them were being considered for foster placement. Her grandmother pushed Jordan to be the first in her family to finish high school, and then to go to college, and Ms. Stiers knew immediately she had a chance to do something nice for her as a way of expressing her gratitude.
This story went viral. It seemed to resonate all over the world that a young person, provided with a great stroke of luck and a windfall of money, acted in such a thoughtful way rather than in her own self-interest.

I also think Ms. Stiers’ story reveals something to us about the nature of happiness.

In 2010, then President of the National Association of Independent Schools Pat Bassett visited Sonoma Country Day School and described research conducted by sociologist Anthony Campolo. Dr. Campolo observed that in Japan, when he asked parents about their hopes for their child, they often said, "I want my child to be… successful." In America, when asked the same question, parents replied, "I want my child to be... happy."

Dr. Campolo believes that neither outlook alone necessarily has positive results for kids. In Japan, parents’ preoccupation with success put serious pressure on children. In American culture, parents’ focus on happiness resulted in their children's need for constant approval and instant gratification, or as Mr. Bassett described, belief in the idea “that life is supposed to be one continuous rush towards Nirvana, located somewhere between Bliss Street and Ecstasy Avenue.”

Dr. Campolo suggests that kids are better off when their parents complete the sentence with, "I want my child to be... good." If your goal is to be a good person, then the more likely long term result is that you will be both happy and successful.

British journalist Ruth Whippman writes about this same idea in her new book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” Ms. Whippman questions why our cultural goal to pursue happiness, written right into our founding documents, results in such a cultural paradox: “Despite the fact that Americans spend more time and money in search of happiness than any other nation on earth, research shows that the United States is one of the least contented, most anxious countries in the developed world.” Ms. Whippman finds that when people turn their attention toward helping others, rather than themselves, then they live much happier lives.

One of my favorite quotes from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast is “The root of joy is gratefulness… It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” We started a practice at our school a few years ago of “Thursday Thank-Yous,” a time to reflect on things that people had done to help over the previous week, small and large. It brings me joy to read all the ways in which our faculty and staff recognize and appreciate one another. I saw a lot of joy in Jordan Stiers’ eyes and in her words when I read the newspaper article about her, all stemming from gratitude. It is a lesson for us all in the happiness that comes through thinking about others.

Sonoma Country Day School

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Santa Rosa, CA 95403
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The premier, fully accredited, independent TK-8 college preparatory school in Sonoma County. Located in northern Santa Rosa and proud home of The Jackson Theater, SCDS offers a challenging academic program rich in fine and performing arts, music, world languages, and social and emotional learning. For more than thirty years SCDS has been the school that brings learning to life.