The Great Happiness Debate: Parenting Wins, Hands Down

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Happiness is everywhere and the human quest to understand its underpinnings is ubiquitous. It’s a concept that everyone wants to capture, research and understand so that we can lead a more contented life. Just scan the headlines in The London Times or  The New York Times – or flip through a copy of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin or The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama – and it becomes crystal clear that everyone wants a slice of the happiness cake. I have to confess: so do I. When I stumble on a headline that has the word happiness in it, I am immediately drawn in.

There have been even lots of recent studies lately on happiness that looks at childless people versus those with children. One of them was conducted at the University of York in the UK by social scientist Dr. Nattavudh Powdthavee, who argues that the notion of breeding fostering happiness is a “focusing illusion,” and that there is almost no association between having children and contentment.

A recent New York Times article about parenting highlights the work of Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, whose study found that parents are more depressed than non-parents no matter what their circumstances – whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.

When I read these findings, it immediately sends me into a tailspin. Not because I resent the fact that I’m being placed into the “unhappy” category but rather because I question their definitions of happiness – and what that means for me. Some of my mommy friends respond by saying things like, “Of course I am happy. My children are my greatest blessings,” or, “They are the best things that ever happened to me.” Most of that is very true but I still don’t believe that’s what makes us happy.

A wise and more experienced mother once told me that life is a lot like labor, made up of a series of contractions, and that living a contented life is really about understanding that even in the moments of calm there is a contraction around the corner. When you understand that, she said, you can truly be happy.

In my mind, children reinforce that message on a daily message. They remind us that even when there is calm, a storm is brewing. By their very nature they are constantly changing and shifting: one day they love Goodnight Moon, the next they are bored by it. Your most adventurous eater can, at the drop off a hat, become your pickiest and your fearless swimmer can become your most apprehensive. That is the nature of the game. As much as you try to peg your children, they will change.

I remember with my first daughter, I would get so excited when she would sleep eight hours straight for four nights in a row. I thought that a pattern had formed and that this schedule was etched in her brain. Boy, was I wrong. I would mistakenly think I was now in a groove and relish being there and set myself up for terrible disappointment when all of a sudden things changed. But now I know better. And I can thank my children for that. I would disagree with the research and say that while my children are my greatest blessings, they have taught me the greatest lessons of all: how to let go of control and be content with what I have at that moment in time, all while knowing it could change tomorrow.

They force me to be mindful and in the moment. When I sit with my daughters while they are coloring or playing in the backyard, I force myself to stop my internal chatter of to-do lists and worry and instead just be with them, truly be with them in the moment, because that moment is fleeting. It doesn’t come easily and I have thought many of times of writing it on my hand but when I am successful, I feel an immense joy and happiness. In that moment I am able to see them for who they are and how lucky I am to be a part of their lives. There is no joy greater than that.