Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happiness Is Not a Univocal Term

I was a bit amused by this article on research about self-reports of happiness. Apparently we think having children contributes to our happiness. But it's also clear that people with children have less free time to devote purely to amusing themselves, have to work harder, tend to be more harried and stressed, are burdened with more responsibilities, worry a lot more, etc., than they they ever did before they had them. Who knew?

It's not the researchers' interpretation, but the way I'd interpret this sort of discrepancy is that we are running up hard against the fact that happiness is not, despite what seems to be the common assumption, a univocal term, and that some things, like children, can contribute to your happiness in ways that apparently don't contribute to your 'sense of well-being'. We already know that our bizarrely disproportionate emphasis on sense of well-being is not a cultural universal: happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, etc. are not universally understood to be defined as 'profound sense of well-being'; and there are lots of views of happiness in which the sense of well-being is as different from happiness as the sense of being successful is different from success, or the sense of being right is different from being right, or the sense that one is a pleasant person is different from actually being a pleasant person, or the sense that one is virtuous is different from real virtue. Examples like children, however, show that we are not even consistent on this ourselves: muddling fulfillment and sense of fulfillment together, we start tangling ourselves into knots, recognizing that having children contributes to one's happiness even while it is patently obvious that every child is a lot of work, frustration, worry, exasperation, stress, and insanity rolled into one. But a person with children is, as we rightly say, blessed with children; and while it's not an indefeasible blessing, almost everyone recognizes that it is a powerful one. This is something that can be recognized entirely independently of questions about whether people feel more satisfied with themselves and their lives when they have children. And it is a good thing, too; it is one thing to have children in order to have the blessing of the children themselves, but very few things would be more horrible than people having children for the purpose of increasing their own sense of well-being. The happiness that is the possession of a blessed life and the happiness that is the feeling of satisfaction about one's own life can be very different.

The real question the researchers should be asking even on their own terms, by the way, is why having children, with all the obvious stress, worry, and difficulty it brings, doesn't lead to exactly the opposite result. If, for instance, parents in Britain have on average the same sense of well-being as non-parents, surely the puzzle is not why they don't have more but why they don't have much, much less. Having children massively closes down options; it increases occasions for stress; it drains one of energy, time, resources; and yet it doesn't make people utterly miserable. In fact, they are about the same as they are without children. That is the odd fact about parenting and sense of well-being that needs explanation.

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