Being happy is a toddler’s game. It means eating only comfort food, cuddling in bed, and not having to get up while watching TV, not even to use the bathroom. Happiness is when kind, loving people attend to your every need and require little or nothing in return. You know what they say: No work and all play makes Brian a happy boy. Or does it?
An essay in The New York Times Millennial Searchers, by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker defines happiness as being “self-oriented,” requiring a person to put their own needs before others and be a “taker.” Or, in other words, a toddler. The essay describes how new data suggests that millennials, the generation born after 1980, may be more interested in leading meaningful lives than happy ones.
The difference? According to the authors, “Those who reported having a meaningful life saw themselves as more other-oriented by being, more specifically, a ‘giver.’ People who said that doing things for others was important to them reported having more meaning their lives.”
While meaning is an abstract concept, an underlying characteristic is a sense of connection to others, a feeling that you’re contributing to something outside of yourself and bettering the world at large. This is fairly at odds with ego-centric happiness. “Having children,” the authors write, “is associated with high meaning but lower happiness.”
Now you tell me!
Obviously, the two feelings can, and, I think, should overlap. It doesn’t strike me as healthy to be on either extreme. There was, for example, a story in The New Yorker some years back about a man who gave so much away that he donated organs to strangers. It seemed obsessive and unhealthy, ultimately more about his sacrifice then the actual giving. On the other hand, you have the stereotype of the wolf on Wall Street, the hedonistic earner who cares only about feeding his or her greed.
Some years back I walked away from a corporate job that, while intellectually satisfying, felt emotionally hollow. I left to teach low income children of color, a job that gave me a great sense of purpose, but required me to give so much energy that I had little left over for my own creative pursuits. Even as a dad, I strive to keep a sense of independence from my family by going out with friends, and forming relationships that don’t focus on parenting. Finding a middle ground between giving and taking, having meaning and having happiness, working to help others and also satisfying your own needs and desires, seems key. Like everything in life, balance is essential, and that equilibrium will look different for each person.
The question is: how do we help our children value meaning? Because the quest for happiness is a base part of our personality, there from the start. It may even be instinctual. The harder lesson to learn is that sharing and doing things for others feels good. For many families, here is where religion plays a part. The world’s religious narratives are rife with examples of people who help others, and treat their fellow humans with compassion, love, and acceptance. Here too is where great books come in, as reading helps build emotional muscle, and many good writers have explored this very struggle. Even the great Odysseus wondered how to be both a good man and a happy one!
Ultimately, though, I think our own lives present the best model for our children. How happy are you? How meaningful do you feel your life and work to be? By leading an examined life, we can question ourselves and correct our course, ever in search of that ideal balance.
It’s possible that being perfectly poised between doing for others and doing for yourself isn’t something a person experiences minute to minute, or day to day. Riding a bike requires constant shifts in weight, little steers and wobbles as the wheel spins over the bumpy ground. It’s only from a distance that we see how we’ve ridden in a straight line, and perhaps with more grace than we would have anticipated.