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The Pursuit of Happiness

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I've said it. You've said it. We've all said it.

"I just want my children to be happy."

Some people coo the words earnestly, leaning forward with clasped hands to emphasize how important their children's happiness is. Others are more off-handed, breezily noting in the midst of conversation that life isn't so serious, and happiness is easy to achieve -- if we just let our children find their bliss. Others voice their hopes in a whisper, afraid that too brazenly asking for happiness might tempt fate to deliver exactly the opposite.

It surprises me that we often talk of happiness as if it's a profession, wishing our children could be happy in the same way we'd like our daughters and sons to be doctors or teachers or engineers. Hoping, maybe, that with enough hard work, schooling and practice, they can get Ph.D.'s in joy and contentment. "Look at her," we'd all say, "that's so-and-so's oldest. She's happy."

It's natural to want see our children contented or giddy with excitement. I love watching my boys laugh at a joke or find pleasure in spending time together. I'm secretly pleased that our basement is not soundproofed so I can hear my stepson yelling with his friends when they play video games or overhear Little Dude's monologues as he builds a new train track. The moments when they are giddy make me smile and let me know we're not completely failing as parents. I hope they have a million perfect moments throughout their lives.

That said, when I think of what I genuinely want for these boys, happiness is not the first thing that comes to mind. If I had to choose one thing to teach them, it would not be "how to be happy."

I hope saying so does not make me a bad parent.

It certainly seems to put me at odds with an avalanche of books suggesting that happiness should be our primary objective. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Gretchen Rubin has advice on how to be happy. And it's all useful and helpful if what you are seeking is more joy. Which, oddly enough, I'm not.

It's not that I want my kids to grow up depressed or miserable. I hope they avoid lives of quiet desperation. There's no need for them to dress themselves in sack cloth and deny themselves the pleasures of the world. I won't roll my eyes or disapprove if they are occasionally punch-drunk-off-the-rails-out-of-their-minds euphoric or if they call me to tell me how happy they are. (I do hope when they call they aren't actually wasted though, because drunk-dialing is just annoying.)

But what I've learned is that happiness is easy to attain in short bursts, but hard to maintain over time. It's like the snow you catch in your hands -- it eventually melts. I am happy when I've had a tiny bit too much to drink, find the perfect chocolate, or get to sleep past 7 in the morning. I have had happy moments both big and small. But the pleasure I get from these things ebbs and flows -- I can wake up happy and then have a perfectly miserable day. So I don't know how to encourage my children to set out on a quest for something that ephemeral.

So if happiness isn't the goal, what is? For me, it's a sense of purpose. If I had my way (which, alas, I rarely do), the Declaration of Independence would promise us "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Meaning" instead of the "Pursuit of Happiness." No offense to Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers. Bang up job. Really. But happiness seems like a pretty transitory thing to spend a life chasing.

Meaning, on the other hand, endures. A life can contain a thousand happy moments, but it may not be a life well lived. The search for joy or pleasure alone doesn't seem to be much to be proud of. Hedonists can be happy, but I don't know many parents who want a life of selfish indulgence for our kids. A life committed to a goal, even it means you struggle and fail and ask, "What the hell am I doing?" -- that's a life to celebrate. It's a journey that may require you to sacrifice your own happiness or well-being, as any parent on the wrong end of a sleepless night will tell you, but the rewards far outweigh whatever small moments of happiness you may miss.

Where happiness can be shortsighted and narcissistic, meaning takes the long-view. Where happiness often focuses on what we get or take from other people, meaning is about what we give to them. Where happiness is enjoyable, meaning gives you reserves to get through hard things.

In an uncertain world, I need all the reserves I can get and I think my kids will too.

I have no idea where my children will find meaning. Maybe they'll discover it in church, a cause, a profession or a calling. I just hope that they do. Because I found meaning when I became a parent. I also found happiness, but even though I love my boys dearly, not every day is filled with sunshine and singing. I am not always "happy," because sometimes parenting is hard, but the purpose I find in it gets me through the more challenging moments. Being a parent gives my life meaning and helps me persevere through the difficult, because I know every sacrifice is an intentional choice to invest in someone other than myself with the hope that their life will be better for it. I may not always be cheerful, but my life is rich and full and better than I could have ever dreamed it would be. One day, I want my children to be able to say that too.

So the next time someone says, "I just want my kids to be happy," I'll secretly hope that mine won't be. I want them to find something more. And, oddly enough, that would make me happy.