The Case Against Happiness

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[Tony Woodlief]
 
I'm wondering if a parent's happiness is overrated. I've been trying to make sense of the evidence. Will Wilkinson offered us a critique of GMU economist Brian Caplan's argument for additional children as a means of self-satisfaction, which I think was spot on given evidence that parents report lower happiness than non-parents. But then there are those who claim that children increase happiness when they are born into two-parent homes where they are wanted. And there are also those who claim we have to look at twins, because maybe it's inherent psychological factors causing the happiness, which in turn causes the baby-making.

Any parent will tell you children are difficult, and they wear you out, and they likely will just break your heart in the end. And who knows -- maybe when we believe we are feeling deep joy from parenthood (usually over a glass of wine, after all the little stinkers are finally in bed), we are simply sentimentalizing the whole ordeal to keep ourselves from rooting out our unused passports from the sock drawer and dashing off to Europe, never to be heard from again. Or perhaps we just feel too guilty to admit that, while we couldn't bear losing them now that we have them, we very well could have been delightfully satisfied had we never met them.

And here's where I wonder if we ought to re-examine our commitment to happiness. It seems to me that there's possibly some merit -- if we persevere and have the sense to learn from it -- in the other-orientation that is (good) parenting. It's fine to go through life happy, in other words, but I suspect we also want to go through life without becoming big fat self-absorbed jackasses. Children really help in that regard.

To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There's just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn't have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.

People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There's something to be said for ordeals -- like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken -- which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I'm still trying to get it right.

I suppose an economist could make this all fit. What I'm really saying, the economist might contend, is that one element of my self-interest, in addition to enjoying a leisurely meal, and plenty of sleep, and the ability to go away on vacations without worrying about who will watch the youngsters, is not becoming (remaining?) a jerk. Kids certainly don't guarantee that won't happen, but they help mitigate the risk. And if we conceptualize that self-interest, in turn, as happiness, we're right back where we started.

But I wonder if the questions would change. Instead of asking parents and non-parents whether they are happy right now, we might ask whether they are becoming more like the people they want to be. And then we might see children not as factors that may or may not be contributing to our happiness, but as opportunities to practice what most of us -- perhaps me most of all -- need to do more often, which is to put someone else before ourselves.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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