The Happiness Fallacy

I have come to the conclusion that we have it all wrong, the notion of happiness as our goal in life. It’s too blurry a goal, not to mention entirely self-serving.

In raising and learning with my children, I confess that my greatest delinquency has been considering their happiness above all else. Now, with three pre-teens (one dangerously close to 13), I can see that such a goal has led to an embarrassing amount of ergophobia (fear of work) around here.

I am not entirely to blame. The combination of smart phones and Google can own a chunk of it, with their ease of use and rapid-fire responses rendering an afternoon perusing the reference section of the library obsolete (It took me 5.4 seconds, for example, to learn from Google that a fear of work is called “ergophobia”.).

And there is the general absorption (a la The Secret et. al.) of the idea that the vaingloriously named “First World” deserves happiness above all else and over all others.

Recently my kids went through a battery of educational, psycho-social, and emotional testing as a part of a program at the local university. Regarding my youngest, she who is known on this blog as Blueberry and who has wanted nothing more in her life than to grow up to be a doctor, the Ph.D. student tester said she was too morbid, too concerned with blood and gore. Every Rorschach picture was, to my daughter, representative of a medical trauma of some sort, usually one resulting in the need for neurosurgery (neurosurgery being my daughter’s current speciality du jour). Every story she told from picture prompts morphed into fictionalized tales of trips to the emergency room. Even her interpretations of pre-written story blurbs involved an undercurrent of medical need.

“It is not healthy,” the tester said, “for an eight year old girl to be so obsessed with medical trauma. We advise that you put her into school to normalize her.”

Defensive, at the very least, I retorted, “Would you offer the same advice had she come into your office and talked obsessively about unicorns?”

Indeed, she would not have. “Unicorns are an acceptable and much lighter obsession for an eight year old girl,” she explained.

A Ph.D student working towards the ultimate goal of assessing the educational needs of American youth did not just tell me that my highly-driven, lofty-goaled, science-obessed daughter would be “happier, more normal, and well-adjusted” if she could just switch her obsession from neuroscience to unicorns (not that there’s anything wrong with unicorns, of course; my best friend’s a unicorn).

Let me ask you: Were you ever to require the services of a neurosurgeon (insert spiritual hand gesture of choice here and a side double spit for good measure), would your first question be, “How happy were you as a child?”

The fact is that my daughter is not at all light. She is intense and myopically focussed on her passion, a passion that causes her genuine angst (“Why CAN’T we do a brain transplant for brain stem injuries yet?”). That there is a multi-year process to sludge through before she will ever be allowed to cut into a real live human brain eats at her. That hospitals won’t allow her to volunteer on the pediatric neurosurgery floor to better tap into the experience of a child with a brain tumor rattles her existential sensibilities.

But her lack of bubbles and perk do not negate her normalcy. If anything, it disproves the notion that our ultimate goal in life should be happiness. From the age of two, this child of mine has thought far more about medical science than happiness. This is neither the result of nurture nor her environment (which includes a quick-to-gag, faints-at-the-sight-of-blood mother who pushes herbs over prescriptions). It is pure nature. It is who she is.

And by pushing happiness, I fear I have left her with the impression that she might not have to work hard to achieve these goals.

My eldest daughter is, by nature, my hardest worker. She sometimes laments the fact that she was not born in Ancient Mexico, where she would “get to” grind her own corn with a metate y mano (Google search for proper term: 8 seconds).” Recently, to put her in step with this natural proclivity to work hard, we amped up her educational and musical pursuits. Basically, she works her butt off. And I have felt kind of guilty about it. “But is she happy?” I wonder. Recently, at the end of a long, laborious day, she closed her last book and exclaimed, “God, that feels good! I LOVE the feeling at the end of day when I am finished with all that work! It’s so satisfying.”

Mamma WIN.

I suppose if I am to sum up these thoughts (I might have worked harder to be more concise, but it didn’t make me happy to do so), I’d have to conclude that happiness is too elusive a concept to be a goal in life. In neurosurgery, as in so many other parts of life, angst is quite possibly the most useful and necessary emotion (A neurosurgeon who yearns for a cure to brain cancer is far more efficacious than one who wants to be happy).

My new goal, as a parent and educator, is to help my children develop whichever identity best suits their passions: angst-ridden, hard-working, comical, perseverant, etc.. If they end up happy in the process, however happiness looks to them, then we can celebrate the gravy atop their existential sandwich.

But happiness is not the goal. The goal is to be who they are in a world that needs them and their passions.