Monday, August 10, 2009

What makes you happy?

Okay, I know this blog is total fluff, but sort of in the "mommy blog" genre. I heard a speaker on NPR today and it really has me thinking a lot about being a parent so I'm going to tell you what it was and what it has me thinking. It's parenting-related. Ready! Here goes!

The speaker was Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert and he was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this summer about the brain, and how he has taken a scientific approach to studying happiness. He wrote a book called Stumbling on Happiness.

He said that according to our culture, what we need to be happy is marriage, money and children. He decided to test that to see if it was actually true. Turns out that married people are happier than single people, (and wealthier, and healthier. Men especially.) Money matters to an extent. You need to have enough but after a point, it doesn't really matter to happiness that much.

The interesting question is does having children make people happier? He said not really. They followed parents around and rated their happiness during different activities throughout their days. Women were happiest talking with friends and eating. (No kidding, that's what he said!) They were less happy doing housework and grocery shopping, and when they interacted with their children they were about as happy as they are while they are vacuuming. VACUUMING! (I don't know about you, but vacuuming is not that fun, but it does kind of make me happy after it's done. I'm very happy when I empty the canister and see the three pounds of dust bunnies I've vacuumed up.) He said that the least happy times in a marriage are when kids are really small, and the happiest times in a marriage are after the kids leave. I said, "WHAT!" and as if he heard me, he said, "I know, you can't believe it and I'll tell you why."

He said that parents convince themselves that they are completely fulfilled by raising children because it's such a huge investment. He compared it to buying Armani socks. He said if you are going to drop $250 on socks, you are going to convince yourself that they are the best dang socks in the entire world even though you're a total sucker who just paid $250 for socks. Raising children is the same way. It's a huge investment so we fool ourselves into thinking that we love it and it's the best, and we brag it up and we try to convince everyone to do it. We do this to such a degree that we even let it play games with our memories. Like for example, if you're spending the day with your five year old, it's mostly drudgery, but that three seconds when they hugged your leg and said, "I love you so much," made the whole day seem wonderful and happy. You forget about the complaining and boredom and loneliness, and all the other icky parenting stuff (He didn't say "icky") and convince yourself you were as happy all day as you were during those three seconds.

I thought about this and thought about it. My kids just came home today after being gone for a week. I missed them SO MUCH by this morning that I was watching the clock waiting for them to come home. After I saw them and hugged them and talked to them for about a half an hour, we were back to normal. I was saying things like, "Quit picking at your sister!" and "FLUSH THE DAMN TOILET!" And I can pretty much guarantee that if Dr. Gilbert asked my how happy I was when I went into the bathroom and saw a gigantic unflushed turd, I would have said that I wasn't all that happy. Probably comparable to finding out I have a cavity.

I guess parenting is sort of like being a drug addict. You'll put up with a lot of garbage because you know eventually you'll get your next big high. And then you make it last by writing it up on a blog.

So, my friends, what do you think? Does having kids make you happy? If you don't have kids, would you consider yourself happier with kids, or are you pretty darn happy without them? I'm pretty happy. I think I'd be just as happy without kids though. (I know, that's a total taboo thing for a parent to say, but I think it's true. I mean, now that they're here and I've gotten to know them, I'd be pretty sad if they were gone, but if they were never here, I'd be okay.) Do you think marriage makes you happier? I think I have to agree with that one. There's nothing as great as being with someone every day who understands you and thinks your cute and funny even though you're not all that cute anymore, nor all that funny. (I made Mitch laugh last night by making spit bubbles. Not many other people would laugh at that. Except babies.) I can't wait to READ YOUR ANSWERS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW! (hint hint!)


  1. Sarah, you amaze me! I swear if you don't write a book on your own, I am sending this stuff to someone who will talk you into it! You can take something like this and just fly with it. Thank you again for making my day end with a laugh, and a tear in my eye at the same time. I don't know if I would be "happier" married. I believe happiness comes from within. If you have someone to share that with, it is a great benefit, but unless you are truely happy with yourself... I think that is the same with kids. I COULD have MAYBE been happy without them, but would I have been complete? I will never know, because I have 2 of them. And even though they drive you nuts at times, the truth of it is, is that when you see them grown into successful adults with good morals and values and good hearts, that is when you know you would not have been happier without them. Jen

  2. I have all kinds of opinions about relationships and families that nobody wants to hear about. Thank you, Sarah, for opening up a forum where I can unload them all!
    Regarding marriage, I believe my level of happiness is elevated by having someone with whom to share my life (and whose life I, in turn, share). Apparently unlike many (most?), though, I don't believe in the "one true love" theory. I tend to think it's unlikely that everyone's "true" mate also happens to live in their immediate vicinity. What if my perfect mate is in North Africa? My wife says that's not very romantic. When it comes up, I carefully explain that's because I'm dead inside and lack normal human emotions.

    As for children, I don't think they're required for happiness at all. It was never my plan to have any, and I was quite happy before they arrived. It's also very true that we convince ourselves that children somehow make us happier than we were without them. There is a good deal of research that suggests much of this "happiness" is effected at the genetic/reflex level, beyond our cognitive control. One example is the involuntary smile response most human adults experience when they are face to face with an infant. There is also the short-term memory loss that occurs immediately post-partum during the childbirth process. New mothers' memories are, to an extent, literally wiped clean of the painful experience they've just endured, while a massive dose of endorphins floods their bodies, making them feel euphoric.
    It makes sense that we would be hard-wired to believe parenting is a positive influence in our lives since it facilitates the propagation of the species.
    All this said, I'm not really sure there's much difference between *being* happy and *believing* you're happy. After all, people rationalize all kinds of things to themselves to preserve their sanity/happiness/whatever we want to call it. I'm of the opinion that people adjust their lives to accommodate the people in them, and then retroactively convince themselves of the wisdom or righteousness of their situation (as if it was all a consciously laid plan - by God...whatever).
    Am I happy? I think so. I love my wife and kids, and I can't imagine a life without them now, but that was not always the case. I think remembering when they felt differently is what most married parents want to deny.
    Hope this wasn't too long or rambling or Vulcan, but again (points to chest)...dead inside.

  3. I think you hit the nail right on the head with this. There is nothing like having someone look you in the eyes like you were the only one on earth and understand all of your little goofy habits and love you for them, that is hard to replace.

    Having children on the other hand are absolutely wonderful My kids make me laugh so much and create a lot of beautiful memories but when they are all grown up and on their own, are you going to be unhappy? I don't think so. You will fill your time doing things you didn't get to do while raising you children and taking time for you. To me raising children is the most rewarding thing we will do in life by teaching them about life and helping them grow into successful adults. At least is has been more of a task for me than any other job I've done.

    Money, well it doesn't seem to me that it would cause you and more grief or happiness than you already have no matter how much of it you have. It might help you pay your monthly bills a little easier but our society makes us live within our means so the more you have the more you spend. Whether you have 20 bucks or 20 million, you still never seem to have enough so to me money is the least important factor in being happy in life.

    The spit bubbles would make most people laugh even if they didn't love you! You're awesome.

  4. I read his book when it came out and it's a favorite. I love him. I've been much happier since I read it because I stopped caring so much about 'future self' and about promotions and other stupid stuff that's generally meaningless. If you haven't already read the book, do it.

  5. Aaahhhh...the pursuit of happiness! Thank you Sarah, for blogging about this! And thanks to the others for commenting. I'M NOT ALONE!! I think that life is what you make of, no kids, marriage, whatever - doesn't matter. I also think it's easy for us to say that the "other side of the fence looks greener", or "I'd be happier if we hadn't...", but we'll never really know, will we? At least, in my own opinion, we won't know. So, I try not to do that to myself. I very much agree with what Jen and Jared said, so I won't repeat everything.

    My husband is great...and I know how you feel Sarah, when you say what an incredible feeling it is when you've made that connection with another person. But, I also understand that what's right for me, isn't necessarily what's right for someone else, so to each his(or her) own.

    By the way...NPR Sarah?? Oh man, we are gettin' old.

  6. Oh what wonderful friends I have for answering my intrusive questions! Thank you so much! Jen, you are SO SWEET to like my writing so much. I appreciate it!

    Jared, thanks also for your robot response. I think I'll nickname you "Oil Can" Just kidding! I totally get what you mean. Hey lady, want to help propagate our species (eyebrow waggle)", what lady hasn't fallen for that old line... I totally agree that the whole "one true love" thing is BS. Sorry Mitch. Actually, Mitch probably thinks the same thing. I better watch myself.

    Chris, thanks for thinking my spit bubbles are funny. You're a noble soul.

    Cynthia, I plan on getting this book and reading it soon. It sounds really good.

    Anne, I know what you mean when you say "I'm not alone!" When the kids were really small I would read things people would write about loving motherhood so much blah blah blah and then I'd change a shitty diaper and think those ladies were CRAZY.

  7. Ok...a little late, but here's my input on your very thought provoking topic. I understand the part where he said you are the unhappiest when your kids are very little, to a certain extent (my kids nearly 2 and nearly 5)are at the age where they are very demanding of my time and attention and throw working full time on top of that most days I feel I have no time at all for myself which makes me very unhappy some days. And exhausted...But, as much of life want what you don't have. Why is that? I try NOT to be that way!! If I stayed home with my kids full time I would complain I needed to get out more and do my own thing...if I didn't have kids I'd complain about that! So, I try to remind myself that like it or not, want it or not THIS is my life! Love it for what you have and make the most of it! And someday (sooner than I will like) my kids will grow up and not need me so much and then I will be sad about that! :) from a favorite song....."To want what I have, to take what I'm given, with grace"

    Knowing what I have with my kids and my husband of course I am happier with them! I would be quite unhappy all alone....but I would like to give a try for ONE WHOLE DAY!!!


I would love your comments.