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More Than a “Tough Age”: The Potential for Happiness In Adolescence

Growing up, I recall my mother saying to me, “I just want you to be happy.” While I appreciated her wish for me at the time, I wondered what it meant. I assumed she was hoping for me to experience a perpetual feeling akin to Merriam Webster’s definition—something like “a state of well-being and contentment; joy.” Not only did I have no idea how to achieve such a thing, it just felt like an impossible ideal, and one to which I consistently fell short. This made me feel guilty; after all, didn’t I have a safe environment in which to grow up? Weren’t all of my essential needs met? Didn’t I have good friends?

I recently watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech with my own eight-year-old son. At one moment King said, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.” My son responded, “How did he know that would be his last speech?” That question opened up a rich conversation between us about the roots and effects of hatred, bigotry, tolerance, and privilege. We have these conversations periodically, but not enough, I know.

As both a parent and a teacher at a welcoming and healthy independent school, I’m highly aware of the wonderful bubble in which I am privileged to take part. While the world has changed in many ways since Dr. King’s final speech in 1968, there is still much work to do, probably significantly more than he would have hoped for us over fifty years later.

Being “happy” sounds lovely, but existing in a state akin to Merriam Webster’s version does not—cannot—help us foster a community of self-awareness within the greater context of the world around us. To feel this kind of “happy,” we would either need to be blissfully unaware, or we would have to operate with a certain level of indifference. Being “happy,” therefore, does not catalyze positive change. If you don’t acknowledge a problem, you cannot begin to change it.

As a former middle schooler myself and as a veteran teacher of sixth through ninth graders, I have known students of this age group who have embodied every emotion, happiness and otherwise. Some emotions I didn’t understand, even when they were my own. True to adolescence, many of those emotions I certainly wouldn’t classify as “happy” ones, either. But I have to say, often in the moments I have witnessed middle schoolers exhibit “happiness,” they have learned of some specific injustice and are working together to eradicate it. This version of happiness, I was surprised to find, is more accurately defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state of being satisfied that something is good or right.”

For example, one group of sixth graders I taught in a traditional middle school environment was conducting research on the Pacific Garbage Patch. The group discovered that many countries have instituted bans on plastic bags—including, but not limited to: China, Great Britain, Australia, Kenya, and Rwanda. While my students were pleased that these countries had taken such steps, they were also infuriated. They wanted to know, “why can a country like Rwanda—a country with a GDP that’s a fraction of the US’s—make a move to save the planet, and we are using plastic bags by the millions every day?” Fair question. Great question, in fact. It was time to investigate and get their facts straight. My students wanted some data, and that was only the beginning. Plastic bags became their entry point into learning. From local politics to policy making, to research on vulnerable ecosystems and risk potential for humans, my students were off to the races. I was there to edit and approve emails, role play phone calls, sign off on proposals, confirm accurate data sourcing and analysis, and maybe mediate a disagreement here and there, but for the most part, they were motivated, focused, and busy. Were my students “happy?” To paraphrase a Magic 8 Ball line, all signs pointed to yes.

But why? They had just discovered a massive injustice to the environment. They realized that their own community was sorely ambivalent to its own future and the future of the ocean’s ecosystem.

As I watched and read more of Dr. King’s work, I discovered a term he coined called “creative altruism.” He defines it as a creative act that one does to elevate the needs of a constituency that could not advocate for itself. When my students discovered that they could be agents of change, they felt happy. They felt in their hearts that they were taking action in something “good or right,” and they certainly felt satisfied about it. They were, I believe, acting as creative altruists.

That was a few years ago. Fast forward to recently, as my life has become consumed with developing Wellan Montessori School’s Voyager Program—I’m reading articles and books, visiting schools, and developing curriculum, at times in my sleep. At some point in all of this, Caitlin Bowring hands me an article by Catherine McTamaney (author of The Tao of Montessori) in which she writes that adolescence is a time when learners come to understand the world and their place within it and are able to see the ways in which they can use their own influence for good. This shift in development refocuses student engagement outside the walls of the classroom and elicits a new interest from learners in creating change in their environment (McTamaney, 1). This formally identified characteristic sounded to me very much like creative altruism for teens. Could it be that the key to achieving “happiness” at this stage in life lies in a triangulated echo between the voices of Dr. Montessori, Dr. King, and Catherine McTamaney? And, if so, what could be more relevant to the needs of our world at its own stage in development?

I say it’s time to redefine the way we approach education of adolescents and to shift the response I so often hear when I share that I work with middle school students: “Oh boy. Tough age.”

I’d like to shift the narrative. These young people, I’d like to say, are creative altruists with a lot of ambition and positive energy who need to remember to follow procedures and get their facts straight. While it might be the adults in their lives that need to remind them that they don’t rule the world, it is also the adults that need to remember that soon enough, they will. Happiness, it seems, isn’t a goal, but a process.

So why would I engage with an eight year old on a conversation about such things as why Dr. King was assassinated, and point out the overwhelming injustices that are very real today? Besides the fact that this is the world we’ve inherited from our own parents and grandparents, it is also because I believe that with accurate knowledge, he will ask better questions; I trust that he will tap into his own sense of morality and use his creative mind to productively move the needle on social justice. Without real answers for real questions, reality remains abstract, even hidden—as will his potential for effective participation, and ultimately, for happiness.

It feels fitting, then, to close with a quotation from a man more eloquent than most expressing his own thoughts on this topic:

“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it,

because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy

is to seek happiness for others.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.



“Discover the Story of EnglishMore than 600,000 Words, over a Thousand Years.” Ether, n. : Oxford English Dictionary, 2019,

“Happiness.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 2019, www.merriam-

King, Dr. Martin Luther. “Martin Luther King's Last Speech: ‘I've Been To The Mountaintop.’” YouTube, YouTube, 4 Apr. 2010,

“Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes: In His Own Words.” The Birmingham Times, 15 Jan. 2018, profound-quotes/.

McTamaney, Catherine. “Montessori in the Third Plane.” Montessoridaoshi, Montessoridaoshi, 11 Jan. 2018,

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