Only a week after Christmas, I found Jake’s new Lego toys that he once wanted so badly scattering around and he isn’t playing with them as enthusiastically as when he first got them.  As a matter of fact, Jake has started a new list of things that he wants for his 7th birthday and next Christmas.  With the commercials constantly calling out the next best and coolest things for them to have, do children today want too much too quickly which actually leads to much unhappiness? I think the answer is ‘yes’.  The truth is we adults are not that much better.  Why do women have to buy all that clothes but can never find the perfect thing to wear for the next event?  Why do men have to chase after technology and automobiles?  We live in a materialistic world and our houses are filled with so many things we don’t really need.  I am as guilty as the next person.

The urge for what is new and better works deeply within the brain and without it we would be incapable of learning.  Unlike animals, we are concerned not only with basic needs like food.  Our expectation system spurs on all the wishes of which humans are capable.  We are programmed always to want the best there is.  When we have it, we quickly get used to it, but we strive for it nonetheless, and at almost all costs.*

Brain researcher Wolfram Schultz couldn’t believe it when the neurons of his lab monkeys started firing like crazy at the sight of a few apple slices placed in their cage as a reward for their efforts.  What the researchers found was a synapse in the brain that is responsible for surprises.  And it is the same system that is responsible for anticipation – not only in monkeys but also, as was later discovered, in humans.*

Schultz and his colleagues began to study these neurons more closely.  They determined that the cells were activated only when a reward was in sight.  Whenever the monkeys saw an apple, the neurons were set off.  If, on the other hand, the scientists offered only a bit of wire without the skewered fruit, the nerve cells remained still.**

In the next series of experiments, a small lamp was lit before the animals got their apples.  At first, little happened.  But after a few rounds the neurons sprang into action as soon as the little lamp blinked.  But then, when the scientists approached with the fruit a few minutes later, the neurons were still.  So it wasn’t the food itself but the expectation, the anticipation, that stimulated these neurons into activity.***

In other words, it isn’t the toys but the anticipation that gets the children electrified.  So have we parents spent on that money for nothing?  Not entirely.  In Jake’s case, building the Lego piece by piece does take a lot of concentration and hard work.  After the construction is completed, he will play with it for a while and come back to it from time to time, but the intense interest is gone.  He is ready to move on to the next thing.

Jane and Michelle suggested that I should rent the Lego sets for Jake instead of buying them.  Why isn’t anyone offering that kind of service?  Or maybe we can initiate a toy exchange program among the parents.  I am all for reducing waste and toy storage space.

Understanding how the brain works can greatly help manage the expectation system. Children don’t need that many toys and the happiness associated with acquiring things is short-lived.  These days whenever Jake tells us he really wants something, we ask him to write it on the white board.  Some of the small toys we’ll get for him when he accumulates enough points, and for the more expensive items he’ll have to wait till his birthday.  Jake is frequently adjusting the list, erasing this and adding that.  The process itself is what gets his neurons firing and most likely more fun than receiving the actual toys. By keeping the anticipation alive, we are prolonging his happiness and motivation.  The point system is like the small lamp to the monkeys.  Every time he earns a few extra points for exhibiting the desirable behavior, he is that much closer to reaching his goal. As Jake gets older, we’ll try to diversify the rewards to include non-material things, such as sleepover with a friend or later bedtime on weekends.

Joe has the intention to take Jake to visit some of the children who live in the rural areas of China that the Overseas China Education Foundation (OCEF) supports to continue school so that Jake can put things into perspective and hopefully develop a deeper appreciation for life.

Parents buy things for the children to make them happy.  Some even say toys are stuff parents buy to make up for the lack of interaction and love for their children.  The smile on a child’s face is priceless and it brings satisfaction and pride to the adults.  But we have to consciously curb our natural inclination so that the desire for more and better doesn’t hinder our children’s ability to find pleasure and enjoyment in simple things of life.



*The Science of Happiness by Stefan Klein
**Schultz, Apicella and Ljunberg 1992 and 1993; Schultz, Dayan and Montague 1997; Wickelgren 1997
*** Schultz 2000