During my lifetime, many Americans have shifted their life’s goal from success to happiness.1
(And by “many,” I mean many white Americans—stay with me and I’ll explain.)
Based largely upon my armchair fascination with sociology and multiple decades of living, I would say we started to seek happiness above all else shortly after we were flooded with economic expansion in the early to mid 1980s. We then pursued it more desperately after the dot com bubble burst during the early part of the new millennium.
Expansion and wealth came with a price. The people making the dot dough, and all of us living vicariously through them (making the sad virtual dough), were feeling overworked and under satisfied. When the economy slowed down, though, and people had to actually budget for their bottles of Italian wine, many took the opportunity to seek balance (partially, I think, out of self-preservation—If I can’t be as rich as I really want to be, I can at least be balanced). Balance eventually translated into happiness. Everybody, myself included, wanted some of that.
Then my generation started forming our families and we sought happiness at any cost, snorting it like the cocaine of our youth, shagging it like we would never shag again.2 Happiness became the new wealth. The new sexy. The new get the hell out of my way so I can make sure my kids get what they want. Now, for many people in the world, that thing kids want, for which parents will stand in line for days or march in protest for months or fight like a—like a—you know—a mother whose kids are in actual need—is bread or a vaccine or freedom or equality or the right to vote or water. But, we’re Americans! White Americans. We will cut you for a freekin’ pumpkin! Little Jordache cannot be HAPPY! Without! Her pumpkin!
THIS is why the rest of America can’t have nice things.
You see, the white people who are seeking happiness at all costs for their kids can do so precisely because they don’t have to think about much else (I say they because I have bowed out of the happiness club).3 There is little colluding their vision or taking up their brain space. Unlike parents of color, they don’t have to flick away a fleck of happiness from their child’s psyche by explaining why Corvette Jr. didn’t get in trouble for pushing him down at recess, but he did for pushing back. They can hide their precious, happy eyes from the news reports about the latest city where people of color are marginalized to the point of necessary protest. Why steal little Vanderbilt’s childhood from her by showing her the effects of the systemic racism that pushed her to the top of her class (while her peers of color were being pushed through the school to prison pipeline)? It might make her unhappy. Did you know that many white parents of white kids don’t even bother to consider how their choice of Halloween costume for baby Birkin might make people in marginalized populations feel? They just walk right into the store and choose any costume precocious little Prosecco wants. A white Tiana? Sure, sweetie. Oh look…Pocahontas. Of course you can be Pocahantas, dear; I always say our neighborhood is our tribe, don’t I?
As a parent of two black children and one white child, I straddle both worlds. I am fully cognizant that when I explain to my son how mistakes he makes might be viewed as something criminal, my white daughter can cross that concern off her list. And when friends argue with me that white privilege doesn’t exist or avert their eyes with an apoplectic roll when a discussion of a police shooting comes up, she doesn’t have to worry that I might offend those friends by defending her.
Furthermore, I experience adults literally cupping their mouths to whisper the hard stuff my white child might hear so as to protect her innocent ears; then they loudly lament the poor, starving, diseased children of what country was it again that you got those kids from? right in front of my Haitian children. Apparently, the very white people who will throw straight under the bus anyone who gets in the ways of Macanudo’s pure joy do not believe that black children deserve the same uninterrupted happiness.
When privileged people, even compassionate, giving, enlightened privileged people, have as a primary goal their own personal happiness and the happiness of their children, they are required to ignore the suffering of others. If they do not ignore such suffering, or at the very least shove it into their basements to be brought out only when in need of witty conversation and erudite party banter (or to humble-brag about their vast political awareness), no amount of sun salutations and bento boxes will actually help them maintain their happiness. Happiness, by definition, cannot exist within the same box as mass suffering or injustice.
(Are you thinking about that picture you saw of people in Guinea smiling while burying their loved ones who just died of Ebola even though they know that without adequate medical care they could be next, and saying to yourself, “But they are such a happy people?” Don’t. Mass suffering and injustice do not equal happiness. Ever. Never ever. Don’t say The Lost Boys of Sudan seemed so happy. Or that Haitians in post-earthquake tent cities exuded joy. Just stop.)
The more people seek happiness by always requiring the personal win and the family win, ignoring suffering, or denying injustice, the less those very real problems exist in their realm of reality. The less the problems exist in their realms, the easier it is to claim them as false. Or often worse, to proclaim them too hard to think about.
Perhaps this is where we get the expression “white people problems.” It is not that people of color don’t attain the prosperity that makes a late train or a sad kid their biggest issue. It is that before a non-white person (and a parent of non-white children, if I may 4) can prioritize happiness, they have to weed through all the brain space and energy needed to rise above racism, battle the school to prison pipeline, avoid profiling, argue with white people (especially the petulant, self-appointed “devil’s advocates”) about things that don’t exist, like reverse racism, and worry about whether or not their children will be shot on the way home from school.
Meanwhile, Nordstrom-Macy’s first grade teacher is getting an ear-full because she asked her to come back in from playing to put away her own lunch tray. Nordstrom-Macy feels happy when her parents fight for her right to play outdoors the full 20 minutes and when the exasperated teacher appoints a room mom as the daily lunch-tray-monitor from now on.
Nordstrom-Macy’s happiness over her lunch tray victory is ruining the world.
This is not to say that we can never feel happy, be happy, or have a generally happy demeanor. This is to say that if we are disregarding or abusing the general needs of humanity as a whole in order to offer our child happiness above all else, we are ruining the world (People who refuse to take a screaming four year old out of wedding, I’m talking to you. You who voted to shut down the local homeless shelter because it was across the street from cutie-pie Crossfyt’s favorite park? You know who you are.)
if we are disregarding or abusing the general needs of humanity as a whole in order to offer our child happiness above all else, we are ruining the world
I am also done entertaining the notion that by prioritizing your child’s happiness above all else, you are contributing to saving the world by raising children who will grow up to save the world. That’s some 50-year plan you’ve worked out in your happy head. Except that people who grow up thinking that their personal happiness trumps everyone and everything are going to spend their energy and resources making sure their status quo remains. So—what you are creating is not a better world.
What, then, is the solution?
I often wonder if we are so far down that rabbit hole that it can’t be fixed. But if I believe that, I might as well just join everyone in trying to suck all the happiness marrow out of the bones of humanity for myself and my family.
I suggest we start by finding a new answer to the existential questions. We do not exist to be happy. We do not exist to make sure our children are happy. Some might even argue that happiness, like reverse racism, doesn’t exist. It is a false cultural construct, the product of a few generations that gorged on Hallmark and Coca-Cola commercials and didn’t want to give up their daily lattes.
Or maybe just do what the rest of the people who can’t spare any emotional energy chasing happiness do: stop trying to find meaning and get to work.
Where there is oppression, work as a family to battle it.
Where there is injustice, work as a family to create equality.
Where there is wrong, work as a family to make right.
Where there is ignorance, work as a family to learn and understand.
Start small. That’s fine. Not making teachers cry over Nordstrom-Macy’s mistake and then teaching her how to put away her own tray is a nice beginning. You could be open to hearing that Corvette Jr. has been a bit of a bully on the playground and then provide some discipline. Maybe move on from there to modeling for Crossfyt how to smile and wave at the people hanging out at or near his park (but, for the love of all things Gymboree, do this for the people there—not because you think smiling at homeless people will make Crossfyt happy). I know it’s hard when they have to see harsh realities like homelessness, but I promise you it will not ruin them. Move forward by discussing the joys and struggles other children have. As your children age, make lots of mistakes (I mean, like big mistakes, the mistakes you didn’t swoop in and save them from), and develop a deeper understanding of reality, they will come up with their own ideas.
Basically, adjust your life and the life of your family so that personal happiness is absorbed by human connection and mass justice.
Your kids might not always be happy. But they will feel alive. They will feel a part of something. They will go to bed knowing that they are working on the right side of history.
1.That our parents and grandparents focused largely on survival for most of their lives is neither here nor there—because we are not them—so, ENTITLEMENT!
2.For the record, Mom, I never actually did Cocaine. Also, thank you, England, for the word “shagging” and also for David Beckham.
3.Note that I did not write “All white people.” If you are a white person who is not focusing more than 50% of your energy on your personal happiness and the happiness of your children because you are applying for job after job or waiting in line for your LINK card or sitting with a dying loved one in the hospital, feel free to chortle smugly at this.
4.I am aware that, though I parent two children of color, I still benefit from white privilege and they benefit from that halo when they are with me.
5.Plus, nobody, and I mean nobody, puts on their college application that their greatest, you-should-totally-accept-me-and-give-me-a-scholarship accomplishment in life is that they are happy.
Originally written in October, 2014.