Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, in his book, The Collapse of Parenting, suggests that the top indicator for happiness among humans is the personality trait of conscientiousness. More than wealth or health, fame or fortune, power or prestige, brilliance or beauty, happiness—the one thing we desire most—is found in people who are conscientious, a characteristic that can be acquired and developed. Conscientiousness starts at a young age in children whose parents and school personnel teach them impulse-control, honesty, and integrity. It leads to patience, good work ethic, positive relationships, broad perspective, and eventually better health and even wealth. While riches, good looks, knowledge, and other favorable attributes can bring pleasure, they usually don’t bring long-lasting happiness.
Catholics in the western world are familiar with Examinations of Conscience. We offer this self-assessment regularly at Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation—many of us offer an examination daily or even several times a day. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, sixteenth century founder of the Society of Jesus, shifted the focus to a more global perspective by introducing the Examen or Examination of Consciousness. To examine one’s conscience implies judgement of actions that are either right or wrong and which result in self-commendation or condemnation. Though it is healthy to offer self-assessments for self-betterment, there remains only one judge—and He’s not us. Examination of Consciousness, on the other hand, helps us assess the degree to which we are consciously aware of God and how our thoughts and actions bring us closer to, or further from, the Good Lord and one another. Though both are about awareness, one emphasizes judgement while the other focuses on strengthening relationships. These are valuable instruments in our Catholic toolbox that we should use often.
One thing parents and teachers of young children can do to help little ones attain a happier, holier, healthier, more wholesome existence when they grow up is teach them self-control. One thing elementary schools can do is incorporate EQ and CQ to the level of IQ, i.e., spend more class time promoting empathy and conscientiousness as worthy companions to intelligence. Though schools exist to teach academics, it is clear that control of impulses at a young age is more important to life-long happiness than grade point average or intelligence quotient; schools also exist to create better people. One thing that teenagers and young adults can do is sharpen their skills of conscientiousness; this will help them map out successes in their own lives and be more engaged in the lives of others. If they are also conscious of God in their lives via regular check-ins through prayer, they will better discover how their lives are connected to God and one another for the benefit of all. One thing that Catholic and other adults can do is develop our conscientiousness beyond school by incorporating a daily Examen into our spiritual routine. By consciously assessing how our thoughts and deeds impact our relationship with God and others, we will advance from self-awareness to self-understanding to self-betterment to life-long happiness.
I highly recommend Dr. Sax’s writings to all parents, teachers, and school staff. If you are a parent of boys, check out Boys Adrift, and of girls, read Girls on the Edge. I suspect you will be greatly enlightened by his insights.