A growing body of research suggests that you can either have a happy life or an interesting life, but that you can’t have both. In other words, the choices you make in life may lead to interesting and enriching experiences that you are glad to have, but these choices typically entail frustration and challenges (having children, having a career) that may lend your life meaning, but don’t actually make you happy. A happy life is a life that is carefree, with no stress, and all of your needs and desires easily met—in short, it’s simple and boring. And that is why life cannot be happy and interesting at the same time.
So I wanted to write a post about how I would like my kids to be conscious of this dichotomy, and then make whatever choices align with their values. If they are going to be anything like me, they are going to have interesting lives—which also means they will be unhappy.
I don’t want that. But then, at the same time, how can I say instead that they should lead perfectly happy, shallow lives devoid of any meaningful experience?
I realized that I was probably oversimplifying the analysis, so I came upon this as an alternative thought: maybe there is a way to do an interesting life that allows for pockets of happiness . . . by definition, it’s not going to be an easy and carefree life, but there will be moments of joy that can be derived from one’s hard work and investment in those meaningful experiences.
And that’s when I realized that I don’t want them to be like me. That’s the secret to a successful (somewhere in between fascinating and simply happy) life: whatever it is that you do, don’t do what I did. Because somewhere along the way, I failed.
I didn’t set out to fail, of course. No one does. But I lost sight of the big reason behind all of the choices I was making in the first three decades of my life, particularly toward the latter half of that period. In fact, I never got “the big reason” in the first place, and that was the problem from the start. Like an automaton, I just started doing the stuff I thought I was supposed to be doing, because that’s what people told me, or that’s what everyone else was doing. And now, here I am: not quite happy, but at least there is never a dull moment.
I think a lot of the reason for my beeline through school, headfirst into a professional career, was my single-minded focus on financial stability. You can understand this if you, like me, grew up with no money, not quite poor enough to qualify for public assistance (at least not all of the time), but not quite comfortable enough to make mindless grocery store purchases, take regular vacations, or toss the hand-me-downs in favor of new clothes every season. We were always struggling, so my personal mission was to get to that point where I no longer had to struggle.
I got there … for the most part. I’m not quite where I want to be financially today, but I am trying to get back on track with that, and I have added a new focus to that singular mission: do what makes you not only financially stable, but happy.
And here we are again. Because if my work makes my life interesting, I know that it’s not really going to make me happy. I will just take a moment one day to stand back and take stock of my hard work and dedication, and feel something that seems a lot like happiness. I imagine this is similar to what it feels like to have kids: it is hard, oh so very hard, and it does not make you happy. Yet, we chose to have kids, we like having kids, and we are rewarded by how interesting life is because of them.
So what I want for my kids is to have bigger, better pockets of happiness than the ones I have had. I guess it’s still accurate to say that I don’t want them to be like me, but not because I want them to be happy instead of lead interesting lives. I want them to have very interesting lives, experience large pockets of happiness at appropriate moments, and never feel like they need to sacrifice interesting experiences or happy pockets in order to be financially stable.