by Margaret Cabaniss
It seems like every few years a new study makes the rounds about how people with children are less happy than their child-free counterparts. According to an article by Emily Esfahani Smith in the Atlantic, that may well be true — but it misses an important point about what makes life worth living:
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” [social psychologist Roy] Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
This is definitely true. Sherbet makes me happy, but it’s not going to give my life meaning or get me out of bed each morning. (Well, it might if I were Alissa, I don’t know.) More:
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.” [emphasis added]
Again, this makes perfect sense to me. No parent would say he or she necessarily enjoys the daily struggles and infinite little frustrations involved in raising children — but no parent I can think of would say that it isn’t worth every minute.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the child-free (like, uh, myself) lead meaningless lives. As Baumeister says, it’s a human impulse to reach out to others, to want to care for one another and contribute to the common good beyond ourselves — and that can look different for every person. Faith, family, service work, research, community engagement…we all find that meaning in a variety of different ways, and in ways that require us to move beyond our own pleasure or comfort to something deeper, more permanent.
It’s an insight that resonates with the idea of slow living: that we can find greater fulfillment in connecting with the people and world around us, which requires us to approach them with more care and mindfulness — and that even the smallest pleasures, by slowing down to enjoy them, can in turn point us back to those deeper truths.
The article closes with a final thought from Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist whose time in a Nazi concentration camp led him to these insights about the importance of meaning:
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Read the whole thing here. Do those studies about parenting and happiness-versus-fulfillment ring true for you?
Image: Instagram user aquinus