Once upon a time, a little girl of mine begged me for an extra special treat. Having already eaten two cookies, she also wanted a hefty slice of double-chocolate cake, with white icing and rainbow sprinkles, which she hadn’t noticed on her first trip through the line at the “Girls on the Run” end-of-season banquet.
“Pleeeeaaasssse, Daddy,” she said to me. “Don’t you want me to be happy?”
I shook my head. “It’s not my job to make you happy,” I said.
I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but this was good advice–for both of us. Here’s why.
Happy and Meaningful Are Two Different Things
Too often in life, we tend to equate happiness with short-term satisfaction–with the (comparatively) simple satiation of hedonistic desires. We see sweet things, we want sweet things, we get sweet things, we’re happy. Right?
Not exactly. In fact, happiness researchers have recently affirmed what moral philosophers have said for centuries: Fulfillment of immediate desires may give us a grin or two, but it isn’t enough, on its own, to make us truly content. Unlike momentary pleasure, true contentment tends to come from pursuing meaning, not happiness. Summing up her own work and that of her colleagues, Stanford psychologist Jennifer Aaker notes that
When people are making choices guided by the desire to feel happy, the feeling of pleasure that they experience when they make the choice may be fleeting … Research suggests that choices guided by meaningfulness–in the area of [how to spend] time and money–are often associated with more lasting positive consequences.
Simply put: chasing happy feels isn’t likely to make you happy for the long term. But chasing a higher purpose just might.
It’s Not My Job to Make You Happy
There’s a special irony here for me and most other parents I know. And it goes a little something like this: We say that we want you to be happy, but we don’t really mean it. What we mean is that we want you to live a life that’s filled with meaning and purpose and whatever else may lead to true contentment. We know that the momentary thrills will come and go–that life will bring both sweet, double-chocolate treats and biting, bitter pills that have to be swallowed whole.
We also know, instinctively if not explicitly, that meaning is the actual antidote to such bitterness, and that ordinary “sweets” plugged in to fill its place–whether they’re desserts or drinks or pills or passionate kisses–never really work. The effort to answer sadness with momentary pleasures produces a zigzag line that goes nowhere. It’s basically two steps forward, two steps back.
The discovery of meaning and purpose, on the other hand, can redefine sadness, converting it to mere short-term suffering–the sort of pain that actually leads to gain. Therein lies the secret to longer-term contentment, and to understanding what I want for you. It’s not the chocolate cake, or the icing, or the rainbow sprinkles. It’s the much bigger banquet of a meaningful life.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes have an extra special treat–like, say, the slice of double-chocolate cake that I eventually shared with you at that “Girls on the Run” banquet. What can I say? You had put in the miles to earn it. Plus, finding meaning isn’t just about learning how to suffer. It can also be downright sweet, especially when we share.
I love you,