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.