According to the “Report on the Development of National Mental Health in China 2019-2020”, the mental health of adolescents has remained stable but slightly declined over the past decade. The mental health index for 12-18 year-olds has shown a downward trend with age, while the detection rate of depression has remained stable compared to over 10 years ago. In 2020, the detection rate of depression among adolescents was 24.6%, much higher than that of adults.
Depression is characterized by significant and lasting feelings of low mood, lack of interest, and a sense of meaninglessness in life.
Last November, a large-scale mental health survey conducted by Xinhua News Agency and Tsinghua University found that “there is generally a lack of inner drive, lack of desire and impulse to do things, and a lack of interest in the real world. Social skills are basically zero, and there is doubt about whether life has meaning.” This suggests that today’s teenagers are experiencing a crisis of meaning.
To address this issue, we interviewed Professor Peng Kaiping, who led the research at the Tsinghua University Department of Psychology. Professor Peng believes that every generation has its own confusion and confusion during their youth, but this generation faces a great historical transformation that is unprecedented in China in terms of globalization, secularization, networking, and individualization.
How to find the meaning of life in an era of great change is a difficult issue for young people today. The sense of meaning in life is invisible and intangible, but it is also at the root of various psychological problems among young people today.
The age-old question of “where do we come from, who are we, and where are we going” has often been simplified today to just “where are we going”. It focuses more on our goals, pursuits, and contributions. However, breaking the utilitarianism in education is the key to preventing children from falling into the vortex of “meaninglessness”.
Finding a sense of meaning is, in my opinion, the simplest way to help children discover their potential, and this often relates to their natural talents. When you have a particular strength and can fully utilize it, a sense of purpose will naturally emerge.
We often say, “the true essence of education is to help children become the best version of themselves, and the ultimate mission of parents is to discover their children’s talents.” However, in reality, many parents act in opposition to this idea.
In a utilitarian society, parents have distorted the concept of talent to serve as a tool for survival, assuming that only abilities related to academic subjects can be considered talents, while disregarding other areas. This narrow definition of talent is not conducive to finding a child’s true potential.
In 2004, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson invited over 50 distinguished psychologists from around the world to analyze the six universally recognized virtues in human society, derived from philosophical, religious, and cultural systems with the broadest influence on humanity. Then, they identified 24 strengths that correspond to these virtues using psychological measurements.
Parents can use this list to broaden their perspectives and re-examine their children to discover their true shining talents.
Wisdom and Knowledge Advantage
Creativity: enjoys thinking of new ways to solve problems.
Curiosity: has many interests and is enthusiastic about all kinds of novel things.
Open-mindedness: often able to see different aspects of things.
Love of learning: enjoys learning and exploring, and likes to read non-fiction books.
Insight: understands things more comprehensively, and others think he has a level of understanding beyond his age.
Bravery: can defend his position when faced with strong opposing opinions.
Persistence: can persist in completing his tasks and never gives up before they are finished.
Integrity: can gain the trust of others, and they believe he can keep secrets.
Vitality: often shows enthusiasm and vitality, and can also influence people around him.
Love: cherishes intimate relationships with others and can love and share with others.
Kindness: willing to help and take care of others, and likes to do good things that are within his power.
Interpersonal intelligence: behaves appropriately in social situations and can understand his own and others’ emotional and behavioral motivations.
Citizenship: willing to sacrifice his own interests for the collective good.
Fairness: can treat everyone with fairness and respect, and give everyone the same level of respect.
Leadership: can lead group members to achieve good cooperation, even if there are differences between them.
Forgiveness and compassion: rarely harbors resentment toward others.
Humility: does not think he is more special than others, treats people equally, and is low-key.
Prudence: always thinks carefully before expressing his opinions.
Self-regulation: can control his diet and emotions.
Appreciation of beauty: can be touched by beautiful things deep within his heart.
Gratitude: is grateful for everything he receives in life.
Hope: always full of hope for the future and looks forward to a new day.
Humor: cute and humorous, always full of laughter when interacting with others.
Spirituality: more concerned about spiritual satisfaction than material life.
Every child has their own innate strengths and advantages. The key is whether parents can provide protection and support when a child excels in a certain area, and help the child better develop their strengths.
Kindness is the Real Competitive Edge
Many people underestimate the power of kindness, but from a psychological perspective, kindness is another important source of meaning.
Some parents believe that kindness is synonymous with honesty and weakness. In today’s highly competitive society, children who are too kind will be unable to adapt to the competitive environment and will inevitably suffer.
In fact, this is a misunderstanding. In the process of interpersonal relationships, no one likes people who are cunning and full of malice, but instead want to work with someone who is kind, considerate, and able to help others in times of need.
Kind people are also more willing to take on social responsibilities and can inspire and touch more people. These people not only have good interpersonal relationships, but also win more help and recognition from others. How can such a person not be able to adapt to society?
The University of California, Berkeley has been tracking and studying nearly 200 teenagers in adolescence for over 60 years. Psychologist Paul Wicks from Texas Wesleyan University analyzed the participants’ tendencies to help others from this material and spent three years traveling throughout the United States to interview them one by one. The results showed that those teenagers who were more willing to help others 60 years ago usually exhibited the following traits as adults:
• Higher social achievement
• Stronger social competitiveness
• Better living habits
• More stable emotions
Kind children will have a competitive advantage in the future. Kindness may not necessarily dominate a child’s future success and glory, but the best form of a person’s destiny is certainly related to kindness.
In reality, any parents do not know how to nurture their children’s kindness.
Psychologist Richard Weissbourd from the Harvard Graduate School of Education once led a project called “Making Love Popular.” Among the participating children, 80% believed that their parents cared more about their academic performance and whether they were happy than whether they cared about others.
They also believed that “the pride my parents feel from my good grades” is three times higher than “the pride my parents feel from helping others in my class or school.”
To cultivate children’s kindness, I have three suggestions for parents:
Start by helping people around you.
Being kind to others can start with the people around you. Parents should pay special attention not to take it for granted that children should help adults with their tasks or believe that parents should take care of children. A new habit of gratitude should be established for these two “taken for granted” things.
Deliberately cultivate children’s kindness in small matters around them.
When taking an elevator, ask someone who is carrying something which floor they are going to and press the button for them. On public transport, offer your seat to an elderly person or a pregnant woman. If you see a tap in a public restroom that hasn’t been turned off, turn it off.
Through these small acts, children can develop good habits of helping others and experience joy and value. Over time, children will gradually internalize the habit of helping others.
The Best Age for Meaning Education is Nine Years Old
In addition, there are three methods to help teenagers establish a sense of meaning:
In 1986, three psychologists from the University of Kansas in the United States, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, jointly proposed the Terror Management Theory (TMT).
The basic idea of this theory is that everyone has a fear of death and, in order to alleviate this fear, people have created a cultural worldview that can make people feel symbolically transcendent to death, while also making people think that they are a valuable member of this meaningful world.
In the age of information explosion and generally precocious children, nine years old is the best age for meaning education, mainly because children at this age begin to have a vague understanding of death. Parents should start talking about death during this period, from the departure of pets to the withering of flowers, appropriate life education will guide children to explore the sense of meaning.
No matter how rapidly technology develops, it cannot completely replace the shock and impact that real cultural landscapes bring to people. Standing on the Great Wall, the feeling of using a mobile phone and using your eyes is completely different. The shock brought by culture is three-dimensional and immersive. From ancient times to the present, those who travel around the world and have cross-cultural backgrounds live happier and more transparently than ordinary people, which in other words means they have seen more and naturally generated beauty in their hearts.
Therefore, I suggest that everyone should experience real culture more, even if you study abroad, you should try to interact and communicate with foreigners as much as possible, deeply experience the local culture, and not just go overseas to lie flat and play games.
Experience Hardship and Cultivate in Difficulty
Psychologist Frankl proposed that people’s pursuit of meaning is sometimes a kind of understanding after pain, frustration, and setbacks. Without experiencing pain, one may not really understand the meaning of life.
For those border guards who guard the borders, they can fully feel the significance of their work in a very difficult environment. It can be seen that the sense of meaning is not related to the superiority of the material environment, and sometimes adversity and hardship can even strengthen a person’s sense of meaning.
Whether it is discovering talents, cultivating good qualities, or honing the value of life in adversity, each one tells us that we must experience the most beautiful feelings in the world with a non-utilitarian heart, in order to realize the meaning of life.