08/30/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

How to Be Truly Happy

A friend of mine was complaining recently about her nephew's lack of motivation. She was frustrated by his poor attitude, his unwillingness to try new things and his general laziness. "He's so miserable. He wants for nothing. Seriously. He's been given everything a child could want. It's too bad. His mother considered it a hallmark of good mothering to do everything for him."

Fast forward 10 years and I would bet this child joins the scores of frightened adults who have no idea how to be happy. I get so frustrated when I look at all of our society's messages that tell us how having the right lifestyle and all of its accoutrements are what you need to be happy. I meet countless adults loaded up on antidepressants, in part because they really have no idea how to be happy. It's tragic. And yet they can't seem to give up the vapid pursuits of social status and things. "If I just had..." they say.

I tend to think the hallmark of good parenting is more about how well you teach your children to do for themselves. And I think what you teach them to do for themselves will largely determine their success and happiness in life.

Recently my husband and I started a list of everything we want our children to know and know how to do before they go out into the world on their own. The list contains everything from good money management to how to make yourself happy to how to respect others and so on.

To meet one of those objectives I walked through a mall with my 10-year-old. We passed life-sized ads of watches, clothes and toys, all poised on models and scenery that seem to portray an ideal. They all scream the subtle message, "If only you had this... You would be happy."

I pointed to the five-foot-tall ad showcasing a gorgeous watch, "Would that watch make you happy?" I asked. "No," he answered with a smile. This was not our first conversation about happiness and its causes.

"Would it make me happy?" I asked, mocking desire.

"No." He squeezed my hand knowingly.

"What about those toys over there. Would they make you happy?"

"Well, maybe just for a minute," he answered with a laugh.

"So if I bought you enough toys to last you all the minutes of your life, would you always be happy?"

He entertained the idea thoughtfully. "I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Because it seems like I might get tired of them after a while."

Smart boy. I guess he has been listening.

"So how can you be happy? Where does happiness come from?"

He turned to me and patted his heart. "Happiness is in here, Mama."

"Remember that, my friend. There are thousands of people walking around here with a lot of bags in their hands. And I would guess that more than a few of them are buying with the hope that these things will make them happy." He looked around the mall and I thought I detected a note of panic cross his heart. Children are often so much wiser than adults.

"Can I make you happy?" I asked with a smile.

He met my eyes directly. "You make me happy," he smiled and hugged me hard.

"So where does happiness come from? Does it come from me?" I watched his focus turn inward, searching. After a moment he pulled back and patted his heart again.

"That's right, my love. You must always remember this, because the world will try to tell you differently. It's up to you to remember the secret."

He was quiet for a while afterward and I hope what I heard in the silence was the sound of seeds taking root.

Check out Born Rich, an amazing documentary made by an heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. Jamie Johnson makes so many points well in this film, not the least of which is that having every thing doesn't make anyone truly happy.

For more by Melissa Van Rossum, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.