There are a lot of conflicting reports on parenthood and happiness. As I researched this topic, I found studies showing differing correlation, but the data is too complex to show causation. However, it seems the trendy view is that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The Young Turks, a left-leaning outlet geared towards young adults, has a video entitled “Proof Parenthood Destroys Your Happiness”. This bold claim is based on short-term evidence from a single study in a first-world nation. However, despite the limitations of the study, one of the commentators said the results were enough to convince her to never have children! So is parenthood really that detrimental to happiness? For the sake of this article lets take the prevailing view and assume it is, at least in the short-term. Does it necessarily follow that the best choice is then to forgo having children? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our potential babies with the unhappy bath-water, at least before giving it some careful consideration.
Jordan Peterson gave some great insight on this subject that summarizes the short-sightedness of the “Unhappy Parent” perspective (4:36).
At church on Sunday I noticed a young man standing in the back bouncing his newborn baby girl. He was in his 20s, good-looking, and well-dressed in a white sweater (color choice was a dead giveaway to his rookie status). His new daughter was fussy and he seemed stressed as he tried to calm her down. I had to chuckle as I noticed that his baby had spit-up on his sweater. What a shame. A previously confident young man with his whole life ahead of him – forced to frantically try and calm an inconsolable child. He could be relaxing at home playing Madden Football. With our modern aspirations for a life free of stress and worry, this scene can certainly be seen as a tragedy.
Maturing from Fun to Happiness to Suffering
Kids have their finger on the pulse of happiness – or as they like to call it “fun”. “What are we doing fun today?” “This isn’t fun!” As adults we don’t ask about fun anymore – that is childish. Instead we focus on happiness. “I am just not happy.” “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Are these really that different? Have we really matured beyond our six-year-old self’s demands? The truth is that the constant expectation of happiness, perhaps exasperated by a fun-filled childhood, can create a feeling of discontent.
The transition the young father will go through in the next few years will likely not be the “happiest” time of his life. There is pain as we change from a me-focused mindset to an other-focused perspective. This is called maturing. This is the shift from a life driven by happiness to a life driven by meaning. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs.* This young man’s fatherhood is forcing him to find a new path to joy, a less selfish path, and a path sure to include distress. Calming an upset infant is not easy! “God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.” William Nicholson.
Happiness is Selfish
Happiness is simply an emotion; it is dependent on what happens to us, and how satisfied we feel in the moment. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” researchers on happiness write.*
There is a place for selfishness, and I hope there is a big place for happiness – but orienting our lives to maximize the realization of our selfish desires is a recipe for destruction. As the Stoics understood thousands of years ago, Viktor Frankl exclaimed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” Because of the selfish nature of happiness, its pursuit often negatively affects relationships. Ask the new mother whose husband plays video games until 3 am. Or the kids whose mom ran off with the “love of her life” fitness trainer. (Fascinating clip hyperlinked here by C.S. Lewis on the supremacy of Sexual Happiness). Striving for happiness is our natural inclination, but put in a place of prominence it can become pathological. It can obscure your long-term concerns for yourself and any concern for the feelings of others (mania and psychopathy). In the clip below Jordan Peterson explains how positive emotions must be balanced with necessary negative emotions.
Selfishness and a focus on personal-satisfaction can certainly be a motivation to choose a childless life. Kids severely limit your options; they are a constant source of work and stress. However, as Erin explained so well in her post last week – the limiting of our options may in fact open us up for more depth and potential.** I am not saying all childless couples are selfish. People have various, and often justified, reasons for not having children. However, if their justification is solely based on the prospect of unhappiness, I would urge them to reconsider. Opening yourself up to the world of “others” and self-sacrifice can bring profundity and meaning to your life. “If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you will become deep, and life without depth is, by definition, shallow and meaningless.” Jordan Peterson.
Happiness is Judgemental
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Marie helps people order their lives by throwing out most of their belongings. A few years ago I read her book and threw out ten garbage bags of stuff. It was awesome. One of her recommendations is that you hold everything in front of you and ask “Does this spark joy?.” I asked myself that question 300 times or more as I went through my house. I can certainly see the utility in that. However, I can also see some pathological perfectionism in that statement. It is sterilizing life. When you look in the background after Marie Kondo has done her tydinging magic, the room can look fake and unsettling. Maybe it is the slob in me talking, but is a house swept of imperfection cozy or charming? Does it have character? We can judge our possessions selfishly – our shoes won’t be offended if we dump them at Goodwill. However, do we sometimes have a similar mindset when examining the people and experiences we have in life? Do we sometimes wish we could discard other things/people impeding our joy? Should we “Kondo” our family? How about our duties? Is sparking joy the ultimate measurement of worth?
When I was a 27-year-old mother with 2 little kids, I had a tough time in the transition to maturity. I acted like a spoiled brat sometimes when my husband got home. “I clean the house up and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home; I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” I complained because I believed that happiness should be the default of existence therefore something was wrong if I wasn’t happy. I judged whether each moment was in-line with my expectations. Constantly observing my unhappiness only added to it.
The problem with evaluating your life based on “joy-sparking” is it’s not a fair judgement, it is only taking into account one thing – happiness. It doesn’t ask if it is the right thing to do, or the necessary thing to do. If I used this method I would never do laundry again! When people forgo parenthood because they don’t think having children would “spark joy,” they are using happiness as the judge, and who made “happiness” the best judge of life? “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3. Life must be seen for all its complexity and should not be reduced to happy or unhappy.
Happiness is Not the Standard
Underneath our judgments of life is an underlying belief that life is “supposed to be happy”. A school of philosophers called Existentialists reject this view of the world. Instead they remind us of the intrinsic difficulty of life. Jordan Peterson is an existentialist – like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky before him. Growing up in the military, I traveled the world and saw that poverty and hardship were commonplace. Life seemed so arbitrary and unfair. When I was a teenager I read The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky portrays suffering as intrinsic to the story of human experience. However, he shows that as we accept the fragility of life we can live life more fully. We can take upon ourselves the responsibility of relieving the hardships we see around us. We can accept that pain and disappointment are part of the package, along with joy and happiness. We can be more grateful for happiness when it comes because we know it can be fleeting and must be worked for, rather than expected. Dostoyevsky’s work shaped my worldview. There is much joy and meaning to be found when you let go of expectation of constant happiness. As Mike Rowe once put it, “Happiness is a terrific symptom, it is a terrible goal, because it’s a sucker’s bet.”
The ultimate reality is death. Accepting life as temporary can help us prioritize our lives. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” By choosing to accept the tenuousness of happiness and the harsh realities of life, we lose our naive desires and seek a higher purpose.
Life is For Meaning
Researchers studying the effect of meaning in a person’s life, found that the things that makes life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy.* The study showed, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment.” When my husband and I decided to have a large family we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure, and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress five kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the difficulty of raising a large family I might not have done it (I am pretty selfish). The joy we experience and inexpressible love we have for our children far outweighs the daily difficulty of raising them.
Living a meaningful life is necessary for the kind of happiness I would call joy – a happiness that does not fade. Not the “sparking joy” kind we experience when we wear our favorite shirt – but deep joy stemming from a life well-lived. Meaning comes from making a difference in someone’s life. This is what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” This may be why studies show that parents who feel they are doing a good-job have much higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.***
Parenthood as Purpose Throughout Human History
Human life has continued because people have children – because that is just what people do. That is what life is, it is what makes life and continues life. Until recently, children were considered a precious gift. Cultures and society were set up largely for their benefit. The Psalms says, “Children are an heritage to the Lord, Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them.” So why are so many millenials choosing to remain childless? Is it partly due to our over-emphasis on the “happy life”?
Even today, most people worldwide (especially in developing countries) take having a family as obvious and unquestioned. When I was 18, I went on a University “Field Study” with my Geography Department. Another girl and I were dropped off in a remote village near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for four months. Many children in the village had never seen a white person; very few spoke English; there was no running water or electricity. My friend and I stayed in the one brick building in the village – the small home of a Catholic priest (who had many children by the way). With our limited Swahili we quickly became friends with the locals. These friendship have helped define my life. The women in this village were tough. They worked hard all day for their husbands and children. They cooked their meals over a kerosene stove or a fire. They walked to the nearest well for water. If I had asked one of these women, “Did becoming a mom make you more or less happy?”, they would have started at me in bewilderment. What does happy have to do with anything? They did not have the luxury of such emotional questioning. My Tanzanian friends laughed, they cried, they had misfortunes, and they had blessings – as all of us do. They did not stop in front of every scenario and ask if it was sparking joy. They lived life unimpeded by selfishness and judgement of every situation.
Some might say that just because having children has been the norm does not mean it is the best path forward. Why not pave a new normal? There are a lot of problems with that idea – but the one that strikes me most is rejection of humanity and life itself. Is life not worth preserving? Do we not have something to pass on? Is there no value to the role of children in society? Dostoevsky said, “Through children the soul is healed…”
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is,” Viktor Frankl. As we build strong relationships with our children and help them grow into healthy adults, we get to experience not only our own life filled with happiness, pain, and all that life is – but also our children’s’ happiness and pain – that is living life, and living it more abundantly. If we give up on children because it may momentarily impede our pursuit of happiness, we may be denying ourselves the prospect of a life filled with meaning and love.
Joy is Found in Love
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” C.S. Lewis
We often sacrifice relationships on the selfish altar of happiness. Children bear the brunt of the selfish choices of their parents. Psychologists’ offices are full of people traumatized in childhood by self-centered adults. These adults put their own happiness above maintaining a loving relationship with their families. Perhaps if our culture shifted and we stopped saying, “Do whatever makes you happy”, fewer children would be traumatized and more people would find meaning.
Harvard recently did an 80-year study detailing the factors influencing the formation of a happy and healthy life.**** The results surprised the researchers, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Family is where these strong relationships are most easily found, the blood and experience that tie us to our family is not easily replicable. We don’t get to choose our children’s temperament, adapting ourselves to preserve meaningful relationships with them develops our character and resilience. (I do believe people can and have built lives full of meaning and love without children as they focus on others).
A New Perspective on Happiness
When that handsome young man in the spit-up covered sweater was bouncing his precious child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with his daughter. This journey will have “seasons” filled with diverse emotions and experiences. It will be an adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of it. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness, but if he keeps his mind focused on developing meaning and love, he will be glad he made the choice.
Let’s let go of a naive and selfish view of life as simply the pursuit of happiness. As we embrace the challenges and pain necessary to build a life of meaning and love, we can find the strength to risk unhappiness for lasting joy. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Postscript: Happiness Comes in the Letting-go of It
Dostoyevsky said that “with love one can live even without happiness.” But I don’t want to give up on happiness just yet. We don’t actually have to throw out the unhappy bath-water, we may be able to cleanse it. In order to obtain more happiness we need the foundation of the existential idea that things haven’t necessarily “gone wrong” when it is absent. I plan to write a series of posts in the next few months highlighting the ways we can more happily live in meaningful marriage and family.
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*There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/
**You May Have to Die: My Transformation from Feminist to Feminine, The Philosophy of Motherhood https://philosophyofmotherhood.com/2019/02/14/you-may-have-to-die/
*** Parenthood and Happiness: It’s More Complicated Than You Think. Pew Research
****80 Year Harvard Study Shows How to Live a Healthy and Happy Life, Harvard Gazette https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
CS Lewis Sexual Morality https://youtu.be/XBp8M8M4DMs
Mor Med Barn, Ana Norgden, 1870
Motherless, George Anderson Lawson, 1889
Lady Justice, F.W. Pomeroy: Old Bailey, London
My Lady is a Widow and Childless, Marcus Stone, Early 1900s