I have a backlog of things to post about, and work to catch up on besides, and then Alan Jacobs distracts me by writing about children and happiness.
1. The word, “happy” means, most closely, “fortunate.” The root, “hap,” is tied up in ideas of luck, accident, fate – the word, “happen,” comes from the same root. When thinking about maximizing happiness, it’s worth questioning whether such a state is possible – whether it’s possible to feel fortunate without some realistic concept of misfortune to contrast one’s state with.
2. Relatedly, the “pursuit of happiness,” if happiness is understood as “good fortune,” becomes a rather pregnant paradox. Setting out to “seek one’s fortune” is generally understood to mean embracing the taking of risk in the hope of fortune’s favor. “Pursuit,” though, comes from the hunt. It is a characteristic American audacity that we presume to stalk a goddess.
3. I suspect rather strongly that it would be easier to prove that writers have less “emotional well-being” and more frequent experience of “negative emotions” than non-writers, than to prove a similar comparison between parents and non-parents. I don’t know Wilkinson, but if he is anything like any writer I have met (or like myself), if you monitored his “emotional well-being” over the course of working on a piece of writing, he would demonstrate rather frequent “negative emotions” – probably far more frequent than positive. Again, assuming he is like other writers I know, I cannot imagine that Wilkinson, if offered a drug that would take away his interest in writing, would take the treatment, regardless of the evidence presented. He has not organized his life around “emotional well-being” – and neither does anybody else. Rather, I suspect he has organized his life around the pursuit – both in the sense of “the hunt” and “the vocation” – and, indeed, values “emotional well-being” in large part because that state is more conducive to any pursuit than “frequent negative emotions.”
4. Wilkinson thought this paragraph from the Newsweek piece was excellent and accurate:
“If you admit that kids and parenthood aren’t making you happy, it’s basically blasphemy,” says Jen Singer, a stay-at-home mother of two from New Jersey who runs the popular parenting blog MommaSaid.net. “From baby-lotion commercials that make motherhood look happy and well rested, to commercials for Disney World where you’re supposed to feel like a kid because you’re there with your kids, we’ve made parenthood out to be one blissful moment after another, and it’s disappointing when you find out it’s not.”
Is this an indictment of parenthood, or of baby-lotion commercials? Can Wilkinson think of any product hawked on television that delivered anything resembling the emotional state promised in the advertizing? Parenthood isn’t really about happiness; it’s about continuity. But consumer capitalism isn’t really about happiness either; it’s about efficiency. Either may produce lots of “negative emotion” as an externality.
5. None of this is to suggest that “more kids is better” is the principle I hold or live by (I have one adopted son, and no biological children). Moreover, the emotional risks of deriving one’s purpose from one’s children are (if anything) greater than the emotional risks of expecting them to impart “emotional well-being.” None of us want to wind up like Mama Rose, after all.
6. Nor is this an attempt to suggest that happiness studies have no purpose. Indeed, it is very useful to understand that people do make choices that make them unhappy. And it is then very productive to ask those people why they do these things. Sometimes, there is no good answer, in which case they really ought to stop. Other times, there is a very good answer, in which case the question becomes not, “why don’t you stop,” but, “how can you be happier with this important choice you made?” And, to the extent that we as a society care about the aggregate impact of these choices, is there anything we can do to help?