Happiness Is ... Not the Same as Pleasure

What Women Really Think
March 16 2011 3:54 PM

Happiness Is ... Not the Same as Pleasure

Emily, I’m so glad that you shared the WSJ story on the study that shows that " eudaimonia " or well-being, is far more important to our health than "hedonic well-being," which means something closer to pleasure. I feel like it’s an incredibly important distinction that is lost not only on much of society, but on the headline writers for the WSJ piece, which is titled "Is Happiness Overrated?"

It seems as there is a new "happiness" study out almost every week (the article notes that the field of "positive psychology" is exploding. Yippeee….) and many of them are based on the premise, as you state, that people find themselves mired in misery after having kids.

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And every time I see one of those studies, I can’t help but think it’s because people are confused about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Maybe it’s the questions that are asked, but good studies should be asking intelligent questions. I suspect it’s more that the respondents equate pleasure-tropical vacations, unencumbered evenings out-with the deeper rewards of happiness-earning a promotion you’ve worked for, watching your child overcome an obstacle. Technology has made our lives vastly more convenient: Amazon and Netflix first made trips to a store unnecessary and have since eliminated the need even to walk to the mailbox. Our phones can turn out our lights if we leave them on, or start our cars . TV comes to us on 500 channels instead of three. Pleasure is easy.

But … kids. Damned things haven’t kept up with the times. They still insist on not sleeping for six months, pooping in their pants, and forcing their parents to dine out only in establishments that offer crayons and balloons. They stubbornly refuse to utter complete sentences until they’re almost 2. And just when they become a little more self-sufficient, around the age of 5 or so, then you have to worry about the REALLY hard stuff: Is my son an overconfident bully? An underconfident target of bullies? Why can’t my kids remember their library books? Why is the 8-year-old neighbor kid teaching them cuss words and showing them how to play Call of Duty ? (I live in fear of the not-distant-enough teenage years.) We live in an instant-gratification society, and there’s no way to make children low-maintenance entertainment devices. Happiness can be hard work.

I doubt such studies will deter most people who are planning to have children. But, like you, I do worry about smart, loving couples who would make wonderful parents but are on the fence. Are they going to miss out on one of life’s potentially greatest rewards because they’ve heard repeatedly that kids will make them crazy?

I think, in some ways, we would all be a little happier if there weren’t so many studies telling us how to be happy, or why we should be happy, or why we’re not happy. In the absence of that, I’ll settle for more studies that at least know how to define the word.

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

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