Flora is bent over her loom, all concentration. Fingers sore, forehead creased. Snap! Something goes wrong—it’s all undone, all that work for nothing! She sobs in frustration. Starts again. Forehead creased. So focused. Happy? No, not so much.
Cinder is building worlds in Minecraft. He’s changing—hacking—a map or mod. Nothing’s going right. And finally, when it does—the Internet crashes. Then his computer freezes. “Fuck!” he screams. Restarts the router, the computer. Runs around the block a few times. Returns to his project. “This sucks! I’m so angry and frustrated!” he tells me as he sits back down at the desk. Swears some more as he waits for his applications to boot up.
Ender is trying to make a perfect “O.” No, he’s building a car ramp. Wait, he’s fiddling with his brother’s Lego. Now he’s reorganizing the kitchen pantry. “Mom? Is there anything I can cut?” I give him the tray of mushrooms, an aging cucumber, a cutting board, a knife. He massacres the vegetables. Focused. Determined. Happy? I don’t know… certainly not when he nicks his finger, bleeds, and needs a bandaid…
I’m bent over my laptop, salty water leaking out the corners of my eyes. I’ve just finished and sent out another assiduously, arduously tailored pitch and in the time I’ve been working on it, four new rejections pop into my in-box. Four. One of them back so quickly I know the recipient didn’t even bother reading the covering email, never mind the requested 50-page pitch package. I am deflated, battered, rejected, exhausted, angry, discouraged, oh, and in tears. Happy? Ha! I want to curl up into the fetal position on the filthy floor of the public washroom of the cafe in which I’m working* and wail at the universe.
I splash water at my face, wail to a friend via text, accept comfort and almost believe it, eat a chocolate croissant. Get back to work. Happy? No. But… moving on. In pursuit.
In pursuit, but not of happiness. I think the “just do what makes you happy,” “I just want my kids to be happy,” “Surely I deserve to be happy!” way of thinking—this cult of happiness North Americans pursue and sell to the rest of the world via their movies, ads and products—contributes to the First World epidemics of depression, entitlement, overconsumption, constant dissatisfaction. If we are taught—inculcated—with the idea that we are supposed to be happy and in pursuit of happiness—if not at always, at least most of the time, we are doomed to be disappointed and dissatisfied—if not always, at least most of the time.
I don’t want my kids to be doomed, disappointed or constantly dissatisfied.
And so, I don’t want them to “just be happy.”
Because happiness is a mood. A transient mood at that. A symptom, a byproduct, a reflection. A feeling.
It is not a goal, an achievement.
Now, beloved, listen to this: I’m not at all depressive or negative. I feel bliss frequently, and when I don’t experience it for a while, I will chase hits of dopamine as often, with as much abandon, maybe more, as you do. I think it’s wonderful to feel happy. And I absolutely want my children to feel happy, often, frequently, sustainably.
But I don’t “just want them to be happy.”
I want them to be… fulfilled. To know how to get full. And how to fill others. I want them to be purposeful, to have purpose, and live lives of meaning. I want them to be resilient. And grateful. To contribute, build, create, change. Help. Love. Be loved.
I want them to pursue difficult things. To glow with success and satisfaction when they succeed—to cry and mourn and to learn and find a way to move forward when they fail. I want them to know how to think… how to persevere… and you know, also, how to give up. Because that’s a skill too, and sometimes, you’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, step away, and look around for a rope ladder with which to climb over that wall… or maybe a sledgehammer with which to demolish it…
I want them to be… human. Alive. Fully alive, aware. And that means: they will be sad. So sad. Angry. Thwarted. Frustrated. Discouraged. Disappointed. Battered. Rejected. Full of suffering, angst.
And then, later, or even at the same time, they will be in the flow, productive, thrilled, ecstatic, stoked, oh-so-happy.
But in the pursuit of something other, grander, more important, more meaningful, bigger than “just being happy.”
Flora walks out of her martial arts class head held high, but on the brink of tears, and they come when she’s safe in the car. “I think I did well,” she gets out between sobs. “I don’t think I screwed anything up. But, oh, I’m so upset! So anxious and unhappy right now!” When she gets her new belt… she will be ecstatic, walking in air. So-happy.
Cinder calls me to come see what he’s build. It’s taken hours. It’s beautifully complex. He’s spent. But so satisfied. He barely remembers how much swearing he was thrusting at the computer screen earlier in the day.
Ender crawls into my lap in tears. He wants to see his cousin, he wants to go to Legoland, he wants to have Ikea meatballs for lunch, he is so-so-unhappy, life is terrible, awful, he is exhausted. I read him books; he falls asleep. I am exhausted too. Happy? In this moment? No. But… fulfilled. Determined. Purposeful. Conscious. Aware.
I kiss his forehead, cheek as I tuck him in. Feel a shot of bliss and happiness. Enjoy it for a moment… then traipse down to the laptop. Stare at my cracked-spiderweb screen. Take a deep breath. Start writing. Seek flow, creation, accomplishment…
*Cafes, my office away from home. Because a) flood and b) reconstruction and c) the secret to working at home with kids is to run away from them.
Looking for me? I’ve revamped the for-stalkers-and-bloggers-and-no-I’m-a-real-sane-fan! section: Find “Jane”
Next week on Nothing By The Book: The return of Cinder and Ender penis stories, Flora’s interpretative dance of the new math, and Jane’s surrender to existential angst (also possibly in interpretative dance).
This week in my real life: My real self wrote this column The CEO has a uterus: no, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t. It’s sort of going to change the world and you should check it out.
Really great post. I am a registered nurse working in the field of mental health and DEEPLY appreciate this post on so many levels.
Thank you! It was partly inspired by my reading of Martin Seligman’s Flourish… and my internal debate with the book.
Oh Jane. You’re my new Dalai Lama, if you accept. 🙂
Such an accurate reflection on happiness vs. fulfillment. I LOVED everything. I took this in and will probably reread. This: ‘I think the “just do what makes you happy,” “I just want my kids to be happy,” “Surely I deserve to be happy!” way of thinking—this cult of happiness North Americans pursue and sell to the rest of the world via their movies, ads and products—contributes to the First World epidemics of depression, entitlement, overconsumption, constant dissatisfaction.’ – is perfectly put.
I feel like I need to hop on the next plane to YYZ, knock back a bottle of wine with you, and have you witness me tumble off the Lama pedestal in debauched glory.
😀 😀 my alcohol is Coke (Coca Cola). You can bring a can with you, it’s cheaper than wine. Don’t worry, I’m not Saintifying you. I wouldn’t do this to you. Saints are boring.
Coke? Poison! Poison! ;P
Great post. I agree that this constant and futile pursuit of happiness just creates unreasonable expectations and depression. I want my kids to be humble, empathetic, fulfilled, passionate, and capable of dealing with the ups and downs of life.
Sometimes happy, sometimes sad. 🙂 Alive.
Such an insightful post, because you are right. I completely agree that it is the pursuit of happiness that sucks us under.
I often find myself in that conundrum, and have to remind myself to step out. Not passing it on is even harder.
Telling the kid that there isn’t something wrong with him when he’s not happy. Because he asks. He wails “What’s wrong with me?!!” And I tell him, “Nothing, you’re a normal growing 8yo boy.”
Now mommy needs to remind herself of the same thing 🙂
Cause she’s a normal, growing evolving 30-something girl. 🙂
I love you for calling me 30-something 😉
LOL. And there, despite my best attempts, she outs her age to the decade…
I agree with you insofar as you are talking about resiliency – taking the ups with the downs and understanding that ebb and flow is a part of a life well lived. Yes. That. But many of us “north americans” were also raised on the altar of DO THIS TO BE SUCCESSFUL without regard for happiness, fulfillment, contentment, whatever you call it. That, in my opinion, is what those of us who say we want our children to be happy mean.
Mmmmm… see, it’s not “whatever you call it.” It matters what you call it. And if you call it happiness and tell them to pursue happiness–that will damage them as much as being told to pursue success to the exclusion of everything else may have damaged you. And also… ponder this: if, raised on the alter of DO THIS TO BE SUCCESSFUL, you then look around and witness the cult of BE HAPPY… are you then not doomed to be unhappy? Twice over: full of regret for not pursuing it in the past, and now, attempting to do in the present…. the same way you once pursued success. But you can’t “pursue” an emotional state… You can work at a state of being, I suppose… but pursuing “to be happy” as a goal is ultimately self-destructive. We should do a Skype-chat with wine about this… 🙂
I think it’s the mandate of pursuit (of happiness, of success, etc.) that is the issue. Not wanting your child to be happy. Being happy 100% of the time is unrealistic, obviously, and I think my writing demonstrates that I don’t believe this is possible or useful. But being happy, in general with your life and the choices you’ve made (because you made them searching for fulfillment, listening to your instinct, instead of doing what you “should” do)…. to me, that’s a worthy goal.
There’s also that other layer that I messaged you about privately that I don’t think you are taking into account.
You are so right — happiness is transitory. Joy is deeper. And whoever said that everything worthwhile is fun? Sometimes things are hard and painful to do and that’s what makes them awesome.
Yes. That’s one of my other rants. Anglo-North American culture, and Western Europe is not so far behind it, is really in this “if it’s hard it’s not worth doing” mode these days. Which, when I feel dire, signals the end of times…
You did it again my friend. LOVE!
Why do I have tears in my eyes reading this? I can’t explain it. I am moved beyond words. I just love this.
Thank you so very much.
This is incredible. You put it into words. Today’s society is so out of touch, so incredibly based upon falsehoods that people feel they are entitled to. Happiness, it’s relative. Realistic? Not really. We are the sum of our experiences-if we only allow our children to experience certain emotions then what is the end result?
And thus ends my disjointed response… Really loving your words my unbloggy friend. 🙂
“if we only allow our children to experience certain emotions” — oh, my mind is sparking off this, running places… We’ll “talk” soon…
Looking forward to it!
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Isn’t it those waste bins of wet tissues and that string of snot that just flew out of your nose that makes happiness taste so much sweeter when it descends down upon your needy countenance?
By the way…make sure it is the happiness that you are tasting NOT the snot…