Do children really
make us happy? Or do we just tell ourselves that they do?
"Rubbish!" you're probably thinking.
Check out Daniel Gilbert's thought-provoking essay
in this week's TIME
I did some digging on the matter, and only 34% of American adults say they're very happy, according to a recent survey
conducted by the Pew Research Center
. Fifty-one percent say they're pretty happy and 15% say they aren't too happy.
Among the things driving happiness are marriage, religious practice, money and sunshine. What's most compelling, though, are some of the other findings. People who have pets are not happier than those without. Retired men and women are not happier than those in the working world. And, shockingly, people who have children
are no happier than those who don't.
Wait a minute. How can that be? Children bring so much joy, so what gives?
Taking a step back, I think that Mr. Gilbert makes a good point that the ongoing process of parenting, the added responsibilities and stress of rapid-fire decision-making -- the feeding and caring and nurturing and teaching and laundry and cleaning up, etc. -- are not things that most people view as sources of joy. I am not happy when I am folding laundry. I am not overjoyed to clean up all the toys on the floor. In fact, most times, I am annoyed...momentarily "unhappy." But, as Mr. Gilbert wisely notes, we tend to be able to rationalize these minor annoyances as the "cover charge" for the small rewards, like an unexpected kiss and "I love you" from a toddler.
But I question whether it's children that don't make us happy, or whether it's the act of parenting that rains on our parade. My children don't make me unhappy. But most of the "chores" that go along with parenting do. And typically, those same "chores" can be what drive mother and father, husband and wife, to be at odds with one another.
So, I found some more information
and some good thoughts on how to maintain balance and stabilize happiness, or at least minimize deep unhappiness, summarized as:
1. Parents who live happy and fulfilling lives do more good for their children
2. Having a life outside of kids is okay, good even, to maintain happiness
3. No parent is perfect, so stop trying to be. Happiness can't thrive where anxiety and paranoia live
4. Have confidence in your ability to be a great parent
But so as not to run too far amok in fields of yellow flowers and sunshine days, I remind myself that too much of anything is almost always a bad thing. A balance
of happiness and pragmatism can ground parents to provide children with stability, security and a sense of confidence for the future.
Insired by Daniel Gilbert on the topic, I found more of his thinking on the role happiness plays:
"Even in a technologically sophisticated society, some people retain the romantic notion that human unhappiness results from the loss of our primal innocence. I think that's nonsense. Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better today than at any time in human history.
"Our primal innocence is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and it is not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. It gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis of the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be beause we embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to an ancient Eden that never really was."
And here I think can be found a link back to parents and children. A range of emotions is okay, in balance, to fulfill us as parents, as spouses, as individuals. Our children are the compass, sometimes the mirror, and most often the window to our possibilities and potential as human beings. Happiness, therefore, really can be found not just in our children, but, yes, in the very act of parenting.
Next time I fold underwear, I'll have to remember that a practical life -- with its chores, decisions and stress -- grounded by perspective, maintenance of some semblence of self other than "Dad" and particular attention to the unexpected moments our children randomly offer -- can be my kind of heaven.