Jul 9, 2010

Beyond Happiness

So I was listening to NPR this past spring--it was the week before Mother's Day in fact. I had just caught the tail end of one of my favorite programs, a buisness-oriented broadcast called "Marketplace". The final commentary of the program was a reflection by Betsy Stevenson, a professor of buisness and public policy at the Wharton School of Business, on recent research that indicates that women (and men) who don't have children are happier than those who do.

You heard me right. The childless are happier than parents. Accounting for religion, stage of life, income, education does nothing to change this stunning stat. No matter how you look at it, those who don't have children are happier. Stevenson, a new mother herself, had some interesting thoughts on this research, and I highly recommend giving a listen (or reading the transcript) to her commentary. It's only a few minutes long and is great food for thought. You can either listen or read here.

Stevenson got me thinking and I decided I'd give my own take on the subject of happiness as it relates to children as well.

Let me begin by saying, that if I'm honest, I can't argue with the research. I think it's true. If we define happiness as being able to do what we want, when we want. If we define it as an absence of fear, worry, or stress. If we define happiness as the confidence that comes with knowing what you're doing and being certain that the outcome of your efforts will be successful. Then yes, those without children are happier. After all, once you have children your life is not your own anymore. It's remarkable, how for some years to come Babs and I will literally be unable to leave our home, just the two of us, without some serious advance planning. Since we're still new to Columbus and to parenthood, we have little in the way of resources so basically, we just don't go out on dates anymore. Ever. And it's not just date night--virtually all our decisions every day are dictated by one very small person.

Also, with Elijah's birth came a sort of low-level anxiety that has remained until this day. Always in the back of your mind are the thousand and one different things that could go wrong--so many ways your child can be hurt, can be taken from you. The love I have for my son makes me vulnerable in a way that is downright scary. And of course, you constantly question whether you're doing a good job as a parent. There is no training manual for this job. It's easy to see the mistakes parents make--it's far harder to know how to avoid making them yourself. In short, parenthood means a loss of autonomy, an increase in stress, and a crisis of confidence. Not exactly a recipe for happiness.

And yet. I wouldn't change a thing. As crazy as it sounds I'm happy to be "less happy." It occurs to me that perhaps there is something more--something beyond happiness.

When I sat down to write this blog, I really didn't know how to articulate the incredible feeling of being a parent--it is a sensation that doesn't lend easily to words. But as I analyzed it, I was able to identify a few key things that I gain from being a father--things that are far better than mere happiness. First, there is the deeply gratifying privilege of simply being around my son. It's very hard to describe the feeling unless you've felt it--there's no parallell in the childless world that I'm aware of. Perhaps it's biological--a God-given instinct, a gift of bonding, that awakens the moment your child comes into the world. As much as I eagerly anticipate those blocks of time to myself--naptime and after he's in bed for the night--when I can finally do what I want, I find that when I'm away from him for even a short while, I miss him. Companionship seems inadequate, but that's the word I keep coming back to. I enjoy the companionship of my child. I am beguiled by his childish efforts to understand and explain the world, to see him discovering new things every day. Even when he is cranky, petulant, and selfish--I find he wins me over.

Parenthood also provides the rewards that come with risk and the satisfaction that comes from great effort. In being a parent, you risk greatly. The entire act of raising a child is a huge gamble--you really have no idea, and less control than you'd like to think over how they'll turn out. You want them to be happy (ironic, isn't it), healthy, at peace with themselves and others, making a positive contribution to the world--but there's no guarantee that they'll be any of those things. The odds are pretty favorable, it seems, but still, if we lose, we lose big. In having children we parents risk shattering heartbreak. Likewise, parenting is hard work--emotionally and physically--and like all hard work, the payoff that comes from putting real effort into something is far more rewarding than the high that comes at the end of say an afternoon of watching movies. As Rich Mullins put it, "there's a rest that you find in work, that you can't get out of sleep." All the things that matter in life--that really mean something, involve risk and effort. It's why we run marathons, climb mountains, travel. The greater the risk, the harder the work, the more satisfying the reward--and the risks don't come any greater or the work any harder than in parenthood.

Finally, there is love. Not just the warm, fuzzy feeling you get--though there's that too, but the choice to love, to focus on something beyond yourself. If all you have is Whitney Houston's much touted "greatest love of all", i.e. to love yourself, that's not much. Love's best gifts come when it is directed outward. When you have a child, putting the needs of someone else before your own becomes second nature, and the reward that comes with the giving is as regular as a royalty check in the mail. Happiness comes and goes, but love remains.

I'm not here to suggest that every one has to be a parent. After all, the blessings of companionship, risk and effort, and love are not limited to those with children. But, I'd wager it takes extraordinary intentionality and wisdom to seek these things out when there's no child to demand them of you. And whether you have children or not, to share meaningful companionship, to risk big and work hard, to make service to others a priority in your daily life may cost you some happiness. But you gain you something else far more valuable. A lot of time we confuse this benefit with happiness, but though they can often seem similar I believe they are not the same. Happiness is what I feel when I'm getting what I want, when things are going my way, when life is good--but this is something else, something better and more lasting, something that I believe can ultimately be immune to the vissitudes of life, something beyond happiness. It can all be summed up in one word, and that word is. . .well, I'll let him tell you:

(Okay, actually he was talking about a person, not the concept, but still, you get the point, right?)


Ken & Crystal Pierson said...

hum, interesting idea. That "happiness" sound like selfish happiness. I believe self-LESS happiness is worth more than money. After all, that what Jesus gave us! I think being a parent is the BEST THING EVER. period. I know you do too, even though it come along with the never ending low-level of anxiety! :-) We just have to Trust in God!

Sean said...

Good observation. I agree that we tend to measure happiness based on selfish markers--am I getting what I want, am I feeling good etc. But joy exists beyond these selfish, fleeting, and external circumstances.

Yes, being a parent I'm learning to trust God on a whole new level.

Mai said...

Does he say "joy"? Cute! Parenting sounds kinda scary, but rewarding at the same time. I hope to find out for myself one day!