Happiness Is Overrated

There it was on the screen. The heading read, New Study Shows Parents of Young Children Are Unhappy or some such nonsense. Now, I like to consider myself a temperate fellow. I have, after all, maintained the bulk of my sanity (I think) through the domestic gauntlet of the past several years. I’ll admit, though, when I read this it took everything I had not to chuck my laptop through my bedroom window and then start eating the broken pieces in a psychotic act of protest. Really? Really?! I don’t even know where to start…

First of all, if there has ever been a more apparently obvious journalistic entry I cannot imagine what it would be. “Scientific Research Suggests Weight Training Linked to Soreness” or “I’m A Little Winded: Interview With Marathoner At Mile Seventeen.” Of course I’m “unhappy.” I barely ever have any free time. I live in a state of almost constant sleep deprivation (mostly because I’m up late trying to steal back the free time). The level and cacophonous nature of the noise to which I am daily subjected is typically reserved only for Guantanamo residents. Interrogations– just the same. Most weeks my marriage feels like a game of Super Mario Bros. wherein I play the role of Mario, the kids all play Bowser, and even when I do manage to vanquish their nefarious efforts to tear us apart, the princess is always in another castle. Usually, already asleep. All of that coupled with the fact that Time has apparently started moving at roughly 11,743 times its normal rate, bringing on the rapid deterioration of what little faculties I still possess. So yea, it’s a real carnival.

Second, I’m all for the advancement of scientific research, but are we seriously contending that something like “happiness” is privy to such quantification? This is a direct quote from the study: “On average, new parenthood led to a 1.4 unit drop in happiness. That’s considered very severe.” For perspective, the study goes on to compare this plummet to other negative life events, demonstrating how the ironically dubbed “bundle of joy” is considerably worse than losing your job, the death of a partner, or divorce (which registered a whopping “0.6 happiness unit drop.”) Look, I don’t consider myself a luddite. I’m not one of those folks who rails against the dangers of technology or gets overly concerned about the triumphant march of Science in our times. But, a “happiness unit”? The whole idea makes me quingigaflexotic with rage. I’ll bet more than 0.6 anger units.

I know I’m being glib (and a bit silly) about it. I’m sure the research was done in earnest and I have no reason to doubt its findings. Getting better information about what people are experiencing at different intervals of life is useful, maybe even compassionate. Perhaps even some found it liberating to hear their experience normalized like that. That’s good. However, the problem with approaching happiness in this way is: whatever rubric was constructed to yield the “funny” numbers mentioned above would have to include readily identifiable features of the subjects’ experiences that could then be weighed against their general happiness. It likely would have included items such as:

Level of stress
Physical Well-Being
Level of Anxiety
Rest Levels
Financial Security
Ease of Life

If you have children, you’re now chuckling knowingly at how seemingly custom made this list is–how it preys on exactly the areas that are most impacted in the beginning years of parenting. But, that’s not really the issue. Here’s the thing: I have experienced a deficit in every single one of these areas (and many more) over the course of the last six years, bringing up three children through toddler stage in that span. If someone asked me, “Are there any offsetting benefits of being a parent that mitigate or overwhelm these losses?” and then asked me to use the same type of rubric to counterbalance the debits, I know I couldn’t do it…

… because the depth, height, and breadth of the joyful moments in parenting are, literally, incalculable. They aren’t able to be leveraged against their prickly counterparts any more than a man is able to tell you how many 12’s there are in a rainbow. What happened to me today–what wild thing burgeoned in my soul– as my little man walked so proudly up to his new classroom with his lunchbox in hand… its proper name is ‘ethereal’ and hence cannot be measured. Moments like these don’t “offset” the difficulties of our vocation. They don’t rend them infinitesimal.

They eradicate them.

The broader point, whether you’re a parent or not, is to challenge this definition of “happiness” that is quickly seeping into the water table of our generation. Levity, leisure, and long money are bandied as vital for our good pleasure. You’ll even hear a parent say, “So long as my kid is happy, that’s all that matters.” But, what if we forget about the spiritual nature of sorrow and struggle in our quest to continually keep happiness, both ours and our kids’, “in the black”?

I don’t want just a happy life. I want a thunderous, rollicking, expansive Life! But, that attempt to soar into greatness will at some point bring me crashing headlong into my limitations and flailings. It will necessitate the painstaking development of character, the humility of work, and the breaking of my will against itself.

I’ll take meaning over happiness any day. For me, and for them.

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'Happiness Is Overrated' have 6 comments

  1. September 3, 2015 @ 10:28 AM Jannette

    Bret, a great post today. I agree completely. What fun is constant happiness. Totally boring! How can you even bask in those moments without the challenge and hard work that brought you to the close and beautiful moments that you pray, you always notice. The job of parenthood teaches such a depth of love that it improves your daily life and mood for facing what is ahead. A great, fast, bumpy roller coaster ride. Love, Nana


    • September 4, 2015 @ 11:16 PM Bret Spears

      A roller coaster ride, indeed… complete with prolonged fits of screaming, overwhelming disorientation, and projectile vomiting. 😉


  2. September 3, 2015 @ 6:09 PM Laura

    This is the most profound and on the money rebuttal to the continuous chorus of self seeking, self centered “selfiness” run amuck in our culture that I have read in a long time.

    If easy unfettered “happiness” and convenience is the priority of life, we should keep our roots shallow and our relationships trivial. What is worthwhile comes with a cost. The cost of parenting is very dear, but the return is without comparison. There are things far more important and lasting than temporary happiness-though that is a wonderful thing- but in the end, there is a rhythm of love and sacrifice that beats in a parent’s heart , through all stages of a child’s life and all the comedy and drama and tragedy that is every person’s experience. Life is messy and takes a whole lot of work, but life is beautiful and the only thing that lasts forever. I think C.S. Lewis called it the joy and the pain. Have we grown so fearful of pain that we are willing to forget the joy?

    Thank you for the truth well said.


    • September 4, 2015 @ 11:13 PM Bret Spears

      Wow. Some wonderful thoughts here. My sincere thanks for your kind words and encouragement. Glad to have you with us, Laura!


  3. November 11, 2015 @ 9:51 PM Matthew Taylor

    This is a good companion piece to your post about gratitude.
    I am so thankful to spend time with little Heidi even if it means that I get less sleep or fall farther behind on work. Sure, there are late evenings or very early mornings where fatigue makes me lose sight of the present moment and I fall into a state of frustration (“when will I sleep?”). It’s an imperfection that I can live with. But most of the time my toddler allows me – forces me even – to be in the present moment with her. What a gift for the raucousness typically bouncing around within my head to be silenced for a moment and replaced with the sometimes overly loud expressions of Heidi’s essence. What a gift to see, feel, experience the world with the full consciousness and awareness that a child does, even for a moment. I don’t know how to quantify those gifts in happiness points, but as you say, they sure are meaningful.
    Great post. I hope to see you all at the park again soon.


    • November 17, 2015 @ 12:29 PM Bret Spears

      Man, these are some beautiful thoughts you’re sharing. I’m so glad the article resonated with you. We will definitely be seeing you guys at the park again soon!


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