Controlling your happiness

I’m sure most of you have seen these studies that reveal that parents report lower levels of happiness than their childless counterparts.  If you are anything like me, the fact that these two articles exist drives you a little crazy for two main reasons:

1)     There parents go again, completely taking for granted what others long to have so much.  How do they not recognize what gifts they have been given?!

And the second, perhaps more upsetting reason:

2)     If there is truth to these findings, does that mean that things won’t get better if/when I ever have children?  Is it actually possible to feel worse than I do right now?

These recent postings by Rae on the philosophical problem of happiness have also had me thinking about this whole conundrum of “happiness”.  It seems that a person’s experience and perceptions of happiness can only be influenced by internal and/or personal experiences, so happiness is inherently a “selfish” or “self-oriented” experience and cannot be based on some cosmic balance of right and wrong.  So, maybe happiness is influenced by some mix of hormones, habits, and personal situation.  But I think I can get more specific on the “personal situation” front.

The results of the articles above as well as the personal experiences I have had regarding the “desire-but-delayed-if-not-denied” fulfillment of being a mother in myself and in others, have led me to conclude that happiness is directly related to the control we have in our lives.

So I guess in order to understand where I’m going here, first we have to consider compared to who are parents unhappier? Compared to those who have chosen to intentionally not have children?  Or compared to those who cannot have children for reasons beyond their control?  I highly doubt that the control group was of the latter category.  I do not doubt that new parenthood has its fair share of challenges.  Being parents involves being completely selfless and putting the desires of someone else entirely ahead of your own, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of your life.  I believe a large part of the “unhappy” lies in completely being out of control of what that little person does, eats, sleeps, etc.  A major event has literally made you realize that you are not in control of your own life anymore.

Similarly, those of us that are waiting to become mothers and fathers have also had this profound realization, albeit from a different angle.  I do believe that this is one of the major reasons of the psychological stress that women facing infertility: a loss of control of one of the most supposed basic actions of humanity, procreating.   In fact, the only ones that are under this delusion are the ones that are delaying children by choice, aka, the happy ones.  Of course the big myth is that we were ever in control, but I guess what matters to our happiness is our perceived control.  I believe when people finally get pregnant and/or adopt after trying to grow their family, one of the first lines out is “It was all worth it”, meaning “although that time of being out of control and lost was really awful, eventually I regained some control and got what I so desired.”  It makes sense.

It seems that no matter our lot in life, there’s no easy way out.  At some point, you must come to the realization and actualization (because thinking about and living it are two different things) that you are not in control.  And yes, that will rock your world and affect your happiness.  For those of us with the desire imprinted in our hearts to be a spouse or a parent, its the acceptance that you have no control over making your dreams of a family come true.  For already parents, while the feeling of being out of control might not come with the first, maybe it will come with the second or third child.  I think its possible to try to surmount the chaos and feign control with different parenting strategies, just as it is possible to try different fertility treatments to “master” the art of having children, but the truth is still there.

It seems that the most genuinely happy people I know are the ones who are best able to roll with the punches and see the meaning of the bigger picture because on the surface, we can’t control much of what happens.  My dad’s favorite quote is “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.”  This is where faith and reliance on God become critical to having an inner peace (which may closely resemble surrendering to God’s will) which may not be the same as that “naïve happiness” that you once had, but it will be deeper and longer lasting.

Anyway, these thoughts give me comfort when I think about if and when we’re parents, will we really be better parents having gone through this time?  I think we will be, if not because we’ve already embraced the fact that we are not in control.  Or at least we’re trying to.

I know its a constant battle, but I am curious if there’s anyone out there that’s really been able to do that permanently.  I guess that’s the fun of being human :)

14 thoughts on “Controlling your happiness

  1. Just thought I’d pop over since I usually follow you in Google Reader and just about never comment/read comments. (Not to mention I’ve only had time lately for skimming blogs.)

    As a parent, my first gut instinct was to say, “No way! I am so much happier!” And maybe that WAS true with just one child, but do I laugh and smile and get just as much enjoyment out of every day as I did pre-children? Nope. That makes me a little sad, but it is true. Children bring stress, no matter how much joy they also bring to your life. Is it entirely about loss of control? Insomuch as that relates to selfishness and the selflessness that children require, I can see that. I will totally agree that children DO require rolling with the punches much more, or you’d probably go insane.

    Yet, no matter what measure you put on the happiness in my life, I can tell you that to live life without my children would be an unhappiness I am not sure I could bear. I feel there is something much greater to be had than happiness – love and fulfillment. Happiness is a weak measure of one’s life.

  2. I know I only have one child and it’s been less than a year, but I’ve never been so happy in my life. I really hope it stays like that! And I don’t know what it’d be like if I’d gotten pregnant on my honeymoon, but I’ve always thought had I not suffered infertility for over five years, I’d probably be stressed out and unhappy, despite my blessings. I’ll never know for sure, but that’s my gut feeling based on what I know about myself. Anyways, those studies sound interesting. I hadn’t seen them before.

  3. What a fabulous article, Alison. You really nail it in a couple of places.

    First: “This is one of the major reasons of the psychological stress that women facing infertility: a loss of control of one of the most supposed basic actions of humanity, procreating.” BIngo. I think that has been the hardest things in my struggle with infertility: realizing that I have no control over something I thought I did. In fact, I think that’s why the first 8 months of infertility were the worst ones: that was the period of time when I was just coming to terms with this truth. Now that I’ve come to realize it, more or less, I’m still sad, but at least not crippled with despair.

    Second: I love your idea that folks who have to deal with infertility might actually be better equipped than some people to become parents “because we’ve already embraced the fact that we are not in control.” That is incredibly heartening. Thank you for that thought!!

    • I agree with you about the first 8 months! I heard the second year was more difficult (ugh) but I really think just accepting the truth was responsible for a lot of the pain. Hopefully it gets better?

  4. Interesting article and I always find it interesting to think about happiness. It is such a subjective term. Are childless couples happier – maybe. Is it a deep and lasting happiness – probably not. I say that thinking of the group that chooses not to have kids and pursue what they want when they want it. That’s a more carefree lifestyle but I wouldn’t be happy doing that.

    I can’t say I have experience with infertility or being a parent, but I think my happiness will continue but change come April. I know I’m following God’s plan for me and nothing could make me more joyful even if not all moments will be “happy”

  5. I’ve always wondered about these studies and who exactly they are comparing. My thoughts always was that children (while at the same time being a joy) are also a big source of stress. Of course it would make people happier, at least in one sense, to not have that stress.

    Even if the study extends to older couples (those who have had children who have now left the nest), I think (again just my thought) that the same logic still applies. They’ve had a history of years of stress. It can’t be easy to erase.

  6. Great thoughts here Alison! I have never thought about happiness in terms of control, but that’s such a great point and it really does seem right on. I’m a pretty happy person, but I’ve always felt pretty much in control of things, so we’ll see what the next couple of years bring!

  7. I agree with happiness being related to control. I’m a huge control freak and I definitely feel the most stressed when things seem to be spiraling out of my control.
    Cliff is much better at taking the things that happen in stride.

    I have found that once I quit being stubborn and let go of my grip by giving it to God, I do feel better. Maybe not immediately, but it definitely happens.

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