Children and Happiness


I recently read “What Becoming a Parent Really Does to Your Happiness” in The Atlantic. Research has found that having children reduces the quality of life but the full truth about parenthood, happiness, and meaning in life is more complicated.

To understand these complications consider the common claim among philosophers that meaning isn’t the same thing as happiness. We can imagine someone being happy in many ways that don’t seem meaningful—collecting coins, copying the phonebook, being drunk most of the time, torturing children, hooked up to a pleasure machine, etc. We can also imagine meaningful lives that aren’t happy—an unhappy scientist who makes important discoveries, working in the soup kitchen but hating the work,  etc.

So perhaps it is the case that parenting is more meaningful than happy. Or, for another way to understand the complicated relationship between meaning and happiness ponder the following quote from my meaning of life summary which I think largely captures the authors of the article argument,

However, a meaningful life isn’t necessarily devoid of all obstacles for many meaningful projects—developing our talents, educating our minds, raising our children—involve disappointment. I’m not implying that suffering is good or desirable simply that it often accompanies our attempt to live meaningfully.

There is obviously a lot to say here but for another perspective think about how Viktor Frankl found meaning, as far as it was possible, in concentration camps.

Ultimately, we are not subject to the conditions that confront us; rather, these conditions are subject to our decision … we must decide whether we will face up or give in, whether or not we will let ourselves be determined by the conditions.

Or to put it another way, here is Frankl again,

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Now obviously the difficulties of parenting don’t compare with those of a concentration camp—the latter is exponentially more difficult than the former. The point again is just that it is at least possible to find meaning in situations that don’t necessarily make us happy.1

Another way to think about meaning and happiness is found in Nietzsche,

A person who becomes conscious of the responsibility they bear toward a human being who affectionately waits for them, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away their life. They know the “why” for their existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.

Now I know that someone like Schopenhauer would argue that it is simply “the will to live” that blindly drives us to act so as to ensure both our own and the species survival. Be that as it may, I still think meaning can be found, among other places, in our relationships with our fellow human beings. And if can’t be found there, where would it be found?____________________________________________________________________

1. I have always doubted that I could find meaning in such dire circumstances. Reminds me of Epictetus’ idea that he was never freer than when on the rack. I don’t think I could think that either.

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3 thoughts on “Children and Happiness

  1. I think that meaning emerges from survival in a hierarchical nature. In order to survive, needs emerge and an organism is compelled to obtain certain things from the environment and to act in certain ways in the environment. As humans, our particular set of needs seem well laid out in a theory such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. In turn, meaning emerges from the fulfillment of any one of an organism’s various needs. As examples, growing vegetables to fulfill one’s hunger can be meaningful, or writing a piece of music to fulfill one’s need to self-actualize can be meaningful, etc. As humans, we can fulfill our needs in a vast number of ways, especially the higher needs such as self-actualization, etc. Which of those ways are valued depends on individual preferences as well as the cultural preferences of the community one lives in. Collecting coins can be meaningful on an individual level if it fulfills a need, but may not be as valued on the community level, and so that may diminish the meaning one gets from it if they feel like the community doesn’t approve. Maybe another community does approve of coin collecting and an individual in that community would feel more meaning collecting coins because of it.

    I’m not really sure what “happiness” is. Is it what we feel during that duration of time after we fulfill a need when our body rewards us with pleasure chemicals such a dopamine because we fulfilled a need successfully? In terms of parenting, to the extent that it fulfills our needs, I think it’s meaningful. If our higher needs don’t personally align with what it takes to be a good parent though, then parenting may force us to deprive ourselves of what we feel we need at the higher levels, and as such we may feel that our quality of life has diminished because of it. But if being a good parent is what one values in terms of self-actualization and other higher needs, that person is likely to have lots of meaning with a high quality of life.

  2. Might be better in the future to have bots/borgs, rather than children. Life is certain to become more complicated; thus there may not be the funds and patience to raise children. People will still have children, yet they might give them up for adoption—to those who can take better care of them.
    It’s true that today there’re few bots/borgs per capita: but that doesn’t mean there won’t be many more in the future. Don’t know. However we do know that very many parents cannot financially support children adequately and there’s no evidence such will change.
    Again, don’t know. Nevertheless we can now fully realize the constancy of psychological processes; people persist in habits even if those habits will lead to the eventual destruction of the biosphere. People will continue to have children they can’t take care of—sometimes merely to prove they can reproduce themselves.

    At any rate, all anyone can say about the future is that no-one will be able to predict it.

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