I recently watched a documentary hosted by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, called This Emotional Life. The documentary is a look at the most recent psychological and neurological findings on what makes us happy. Two days later I read a book review in the New Yorker discussing three new books on happiness, one of which is co-authored by Gilbert. In both his book and documentary, Gilbert cites the finding that having children makes people less happy.
Since then, I have been consumed by this assertion. There is a dissonance to it I cannot make sense of. If having children is our primary drive in evolutionary terms, then doesn’t the fact that doing so makes us less happy have profound implications not only for that drive but for happiness itself? I feel, as I’m sure most parents do, that my daughter is unquestionably my greatest source of joy, despite the fact that after several straight hours of playing doll house I would whole-heartedly agree with the mothers from Gilbert’s study who rated caring for their children, in terms of the pleasure it provides, below jogging or napping and only slightly above washing the dishes. In fact, I can do them one better: at least while I wash dishes I can listen to NPR. So when I say that my daughter is my greatest source of joy, am I simply falling back on some of the cognitive tricks I learned about in the documentary? These tricks include, for example, assessing our happiness based on our expectations, rather than the experience itself, and rating experiences and objects higher on a scale of happiness when they are things we are stuck with. Lorrie Moore, in her novel The Gate at the Stairs, seems to put all of this in qualitative terms when one of her characters says (and I paraphrase) that having a baby ruins your life, and therefore becomes the best thing in it.
I want to resist this finding, even if that desire is just a mind trick of my own. So here is my question: is there something more satisfying, more fulfilling than happiness? I can’t define what that might be, but something I witnessed recently suggests, to me, that there might be.
My extended family shares a beach house in a part of Rhode Island that is magical for children. At the end of our road, perched on a ledge that drops to the ocean, is a beautiful stone house with a blue painted tower. For most of my life, no one was ever there. It just stood empty, looking out at the sea. As children, my cousins and I knew little about the family who owned it other than the fact that the mother had died and the father and two sons were too heartbroken to return, yet couldn’t bring themselves to sell it. We embellished the story by telling each other that the woman had died in the tower, making the house haunted in our imaginations.
Last summer, a man came to the house with his wife and tiny daughter. The man looked older than most who have such a young child – maybe fifty – and was obviously someone comfortable with the sea. He had thick muscles, a deep tan, and plunged joyfully into the roughest surf, the strongest undertow. His wife was younger, beautiful, with red curly hair.
Last weekend I walked past the house with my mother and daughter and commented that someone had been using the house again. I asked my mother whether it was one of the sons of the woman who had died. My mother said it was, and then told me what she hadn’t told me when I was child – that years ago, before I was born, the woman had driven to some nearby woods and gassed herself in her car.
I thought of how the man had looked last summer, at the water’s edge with his three year old daughter, already fearless. That is why he is here, I realized. The joy he wants her to experience—that he feels in watching her at this place he loved as a child and loves still—is greater than the pain it brings him as the place of his mother’s death.
Does his daughter make him happier? Not to the best of our knowledge, I guess. But the greatest significance of that finding is, to me, that having children gives us something else, maybe even something more, that we can’t begin to understand.