Why I’m not trying to make my kids or my students happy.  

People frequently comment on how ‘happy’ my kids seem. That may be true, and I’m glad if it is—if they are in fact happy (I think it’s true) and if they strike people that way (which I take to mean that they are generally enthusiastic and easy to get along with). I know that we have made choices for our family that appear to be motivated by our desire for their happiness. Still, the parent and the skeptic in me want to parse that term, because—true confessions— ‘happiness’ is not a goal I would claim, not for myself, not for my kids.

Is there something I’m missing, culturally? I always feel disconnected with the larger cultural fabric, no matter where I am: I am the child of immigrants, and a writer. A presumption that I will never fit in anywhere is the source of much of my writing, though the slots I fail to fit are different in each of my nations: Canada, India and now the U.S. My current home-nation’s founding credo is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (I just learned that the closest Canadian equivalent is ‘peace, order and good government’—easy to see why nobody knows that.)

Today, I start teaching a course of my own design—Can Good Books Make Us Better People? Our search, in stories, for how to be.—a semester-long parsing of values with a group of smart, highly-motivated American undergrads. I know the ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is a right, according to The Declaration of Independence, but is it a value? If reading literary novels makes us happy, and the pursuit of happiness is a value, do novels, by definition, make us into better people?

But perhaps my problem with ‘happiness’ is semantic: I frequently experience the states of being that Google’s dictionary says are synonymous with happiness: pleasure, contentment, jollity, euphoria. (For example, I frequently wake euphoric at the prospect of a few hours of writing followed by family time.) I don’t think they are synonyms for happiness; I think they are specific varieties of emotion. I think ‘happiness’ is necessarily, intrinsically, unstable, and only exists in these variations, especially because I don’t believe happiness is real, or I think we cannot feel it, unless it proceeds from struggle.

My children are content with our life; they find a lot of pleasure in school, friends, and their interests. And yet there are moments each day when they are unhappy, usually because of me—nagging them to do their chores, clean up after themselves, practice their music or French. My goals for them are that they should have grit, should know their opinions and always be open to changing them, should know how to select ambitions and work to achieve them. Frankly, I have similar aims for my students.

Happiness, I somehow imagine, may follow—not a louche, generalized ‘happiness,’ but rather, its truer variations: pleasure, contentment, jollity, euphoria.

Having said all this, if a general sort of happiness exists, I would think it would proceed from living according to one’s values, which requires freedom and strength and considerable luck. But what if your values involve severe personal deprivation, or steep hierarchy, or other qualities of life that seem (to me) antithetical to the variations described above?

2 Responses to “Why I’m not trying to make my kids or my students happy.  ”

  1. liesl reichelt

    I have never been more inspired by a non-pursuit of happiness description. Thank you for this. The idea of happiness as a goal has been a subject which has caused me to pause during many points of my life. Before children and most often after children. The idea that parents only want their children to be happy , at least in my circles, has raised concern because the result is a bunch of ill manured, irresponsible, unprepared children not ready to face life’s challenges. Happiness equates to never let a child feel emotions of disappointment. Perhaps the pursuit of happiness as a “right” has lead to some sort of entitlement that should not be present among so many Americans today.
    You mention “grit”- absolutely! Hard work, chores, expectations and pleasure are all part of how I was raised and are important to the way I raise my kids. Life is not fair- there will be hard times, and it’s how we approach the hard times and move through them.

    I do believe happiness exist in an existential sort of way, but in the way we make it for ourselves.

    Thank you again for this lovely explanation- thoughtful and so honest. It really spoke to me.

    Warmest wishes,

    Liesl Reichelt

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  2. Krystle

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