The Case Against Happiness

“I’m wondering if a parent’s happiness is overrated.” So begins Tony Woodlief, filling in for regular Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle, in a post entitled “The Case Against Happiness.” Here are a few excerpts from what amounts to his brief but intriguing defense of parenting:

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.
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.
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.

I won’t add much to this except to say a couple of things:

1. Woodlief’s post, as he himself notes in the third paragraph excerpted above, shouldn’t be read as suggesting that parenting is the only way to foster an “others-centeredness.” As a corollary, there are many people without kids who put many of us who have them to shame with regard to placing the needs of others before ourselves.

2. Even so, Woodlief’s makes a great point. And to put it in biblical terms, God certainly uses the role of parenting in our lives to make us more and more into the people he intends for us to be, all according to a plan that ultimately will play out for our good and his glory. And that’s a pretty encouraging thing.

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