University of South Florida

Happy Father’s Day: Find Happiness In Your Challenges

By Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM

Executive Vice President, USF Health

Dean, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine


As I welcome a new grandchild into my family, this Father’s Day has added joy. But I also find myself thinking more and more about the daunting challenges faced by new parents. As a grandfather and an educator, I am especially concerned that our children and young adults seem to be in crisis. Young people face unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, and while some of this may reflect decreased stigmatization of mental illness with correspondingly increased reporting, suicides among teens and young adults have increased an alarming 57 percent over the past decade.

I hear lots of theories as to the cause of this silent epidemic. In a new report issued last month, the U.S. Surgeon General tied the risks of social media use to this epidemic of mental illness among teens. Others argue that Millennial and Gen- Z generations have been subject to unusual stressors like the Great Recession and COVID-19.  But my parent’s generation was subjected to far greater stressors including the Great Depression and WWII; they witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and use of atomic weapons; and they fought another war in Korea and then worked incredibly long hours to build the most powerful economy in the world, all without an increase in mental illness. My generation witnessed the world at the brink of nuclear destruction during the Cold War, the trauma of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, massive social unrest, and serious economic turmoil, but again with no uptick in generational mental illness. So unless human DNA has recently been modified, external stressors and mean-spirited social media postings are unlikely to be the primary causes of this mental health crisis.

Sadly, I think we may have spent too much time teaching the wrong lessons to our youth. In a well-intentioned effort to protect our youth from all conceivable sources of danger, we have developed a culture of what authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe as “safetyism” in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Safetyism values risk aversion, avoidance of uncomfortable situations, and emotion-driven heuristic reasoning (i.e., biased rules of thumb) over embracing reasonable risks, challenging situations, and dispassionate thinking. All too often it has reinforced young people’s anxiety and depression – especially among those too dependent on social media.

This culture of safetyism has taken hold of much of mainstream education, and in a particularly virulent form at many elite private universities. There it encourages students to see the world as black and white, on identifying potential harm and dangers, on equating exposure to dissenting views as the equivalent of physical harm, and to view those who disagree with you as not just wrong but manifestly evil. It is a flawed, stunted sort of thinking that suppresses open discussion and debate, abates the sharing of new ideas, and promotes superficial understanding. Worse, it is a new inquisition that rails against the very things that make us resilient and strong.

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb, the author of the Black Swan, takes the argument one step further by arguing that many, if not most, of contemporary society’s failings and crises come from trying to remove all external stressors. He notes that this obsession with safety and stability has, paradoxically, made the modern world highly fragile and vulnerable to black swan (unanticipated) events such as the Great Recession and, I would add, the socioeconomic consequences of COVID-19.

How do we combat safetyism and restore resilience to our young people and students? The antithesis of the safetyism mindset is Stoicism. I was introduced to this philosophy as a sophomore at Brown University and it has been my own inner fortress through all the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, joys and sorrows that life has offered.

When you mention the word stoic – people naturally think of someone in control of their emotions, able to endure great hardship, who is pragmatic, and stays focused during a crisis. All that is true, but there is far greater richness to Stoic philosophy. A great modern interpretation of Stoicism can be found in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, which I recommend to everyone at USF Health, especially our students.

Stoics hold that you should always maintain objectivity, perceive problems from multiple perspectives, and practice “Ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin.” That Greek phrase roughly translates to differentiating the things you can control from the things you can’t – and the need to focus on the former. It’s the basis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s lovely serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

But there is another critical concept from Stoic philosophy that is a crucial antidote to the pernicious effects of safetyism and that is the joyful embrace of new challenges and obstacles to your success, and thus, the title of Holiday’s book. The great Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, whose statue I walked by every day in college, wrote: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”  Enthusiastically embracing new challenges calls forth creativity, ingenuity, courage, and grit. It is essential to learning and acquiring new skills, indeed to our happiness as fully functioning, self-actuated humans.

Finally, Stoics embraced the concept of amor fati, which translates to loving one’s fate. They believed that everything that happens in life, all your successes and failures, even suffering, is inherently good, or at a minimum necessary to reaching your fullest potential.

At every medical school graduation, I challenge our new doctors with a quote from JFK, derived from Greek stoics, that the “definition of happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.”  As they move on to the next stages in their medical careers, my hope is that they will appreciate that it is in embracing life’s obstacles that we become more resilient, competent, and serene.  An iron will, coupled with the support of like-minded colleagues, is far more likely to lead to fulfillment than the intervention of a coddling bureaucracy or government agency. Indeed, an easy life is the worst prescription for making good health care providers.  And I would argue that all this is also good advice for parents.

As we celebrate Father’s Day, I hope we will all pause to think about how we can honor our fathers by helping the next generation to seek happiness by embracing challenges.


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