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Do Kids Really Deplete Your Happiness?

Photograph by Getty Images

Every two or three years, a magazine or Web site will throw up a shiny headline in glittering lights that basically reads: Study Confirms Kids Make Parents Miserable.

It happened in 2010 with New York Magazine’s “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” and then in smaller doses since then. Last year, for instance, Internet message boards got all fired up over studies proving that parenting makes dads happier, but not moms.

And now Gawker is reigniting the flame with its not-at-all-antagonistic headline, “Studies Confirm: Kids Ruin Your Life.”

RUIN YO' LIFE.

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Well I guess that’s a wrap. Can’t argue with science, folks.

Except we do, of course. Now the other side of the fence is yelling back via blog posts, hurling their own studies and scientific proof to show that yes, parents are happy. More research, more studies, more headlines.

Yet, no one is talking about the real meat of this issue: Why are we asking science (and perhaps to a greater extent, asking Google) to predict our happiness? Do we not understand happiness?

Ignoring the fact that these scientific studies are mostly concluded from polls and other rate-your-life-satisfaction questions, “happiness” can’t be quantifiably measured. Even controlling for several variables (which, of course, science!), how do you measure a state of mind? Isn’t happiness, by its very nature, variable?

Anyone looking to derive a static stream of happiness on a daily basis is living in a fantasy world.

Happiness is looking for the good when it’s easier to wallow in everything that’s going wrong.

Happiness is a deliberate choice.

Happiness is individual and personal. And, more than anything, happiness is completely subjective. If people are looking at happiness as something tangible and achievable or looking for it under job titles and over a certain income threshold, then they’re missing the mark. Anyone looking to derive a static stream of happiness on a daily basis is living in a fantasy world.

That being said, there are some seriously crummy parts of taking care of little humans. Just last month, my 4-year-old son vomited into my outstretched hands as I gagged back my own stomach virus. And every time I hand over a mortgage-size payment to my son’s preschool, I don’t think, “HAPPINESS!”

So perhaps it comes down to semantics. What if you substituted a different word for “happiness”? What about meaning and purpose? What about growth? What about raw human experience?

Here’s the thing about taking multilayered experiences—like parenthood—and holding it up to scientific scrutiny: Scientific studies, by their very nature, are black and white. And yet we all experience shades of stormy gray, regardless of lifestyle choice and attitude.

To expect anything different is pure delusion. I’ll even go one step further: To want anything different is absurd. Because this—the turbulent highs and lows, the dark moments that give way to clarity, the utter vulnerability of love and loss and sacrifice—this is life. This is the human experience.

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That’s not to say you can’t live the human experience outside of parenthood. Raising children certainly sucks a large portion of time and money that could be used for creative expression, social good, mind-expanding travel, etc.

But don’t pretend like consistent happiness is the goal.

Life experience is the goal. Love is the goal.

And in that, we’re all doing just fine.

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