The way Dan puts it—and his work is just excellent—is that we try to forecast whether or not something will make us happy, but we’re wrong, we’re mistaken. He gives all these examples of how we think we’re going to like something, and we think we liked it afterwards, but we actually don’t like it all.
His most provocative example is having children. He says this gets him into all sorts of trouble. People get enraged and walk out of his talks. But the literature is pretty clear that if you beep people on a beeper while they’re with their children and ask them how they’re feeling, they’re not so happy. But if you ask people what they like most in life, they say they love their kids—their kids are the great joys of their lives. The way Dan puts it is that we’re wrong. Kids really make us unhappy, but we think they make this happy. He gives different reasons why, but one reason is that we’re fooled by the media. We’re suckered in by this legend.
I actually don’t think that’s the right way to look at things. It’s possible for kids to be a pain in the ass day to day and to be a huge joy in a broader sense. You may experience that joy only when you ask, “What kind of person am I? What kind of life am I living?” That’s when you get joy. But in daily life, you’re jamming your kids into the car and changing diapers and looking for a McDonald’s and getting yelled at, and then they poke you, and you’re miserable. But when you think about the experience of having them, you’re happy.
My disagreement with Dan is that Dan would say, “Somebody’s got to be wrong there.” But the way I see it, it’s no different than saying to a friend, “I like going to Vegas and you don’t.” It’s just two selves having a difference of opinion.
I wanted to ask you about that research on children. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that getting married is one of the few things that’s actually been shown to make people happier. Since we had that discussion, I have gotten married…
Thanks! I’ve actually thought a lot about what you said, because there’s been a very obvious increase in my day-to-day happiness. But it’s a bit disconcerting to think that all of that happiness will start to evaporate once I have children.
Dan has a scary graph in his book Stumbling Upon Happiness. When you get married, he shows happiness shooting up—it skyrockets, and it’s all wonderful. Then you have kids, and it starts creeping down and down and down and down. And when they leave the house, you’re back to your glorious happiness. That, to me, makes no sense at all. It fits very badly with my own life experience.
Yes, I remember how you quoted your little boy Max in your last article. You seemed to be a very proud, happy father.
That’s right. I have two kids, Max and Zach, and I’m very close with both of them. They’re the great joys of my life. But you know, Dan might be right. Day to day, kids are difficult to deal with. But I think they add a richness to your life that’s incomparable.