recent essay in Time Magazine asked the question, “does fatherhood make you happy?” The essay, authored by Daniel Gilbert, described how so many men are quick to say that being a father is the thing that makes them the most happy – yet, when this question is scientifically researched, raising kids yields about the same amount of happiness as housework. Mr. Gilbert goes on to cite researchers who have discovered that people cite eating, exercising, shopping and watching television as things that bring them more happiness than interacting with their children. I was a brand new father when I read this essay and I couldn’t believe the blasphemy of someone saying that parenthood may not make you the happiest person on the planet. Then, the novelty of being a new parent wore off.
I’m only four years into this journey of fatherhood, and I have caught myself telling folks that nothing makes me happier than being a dad. Truth be told, the sleepless nights, our two sons' constant calls for attention, the back-breaking and knee-popping that comes along with playtime on the floor, and the complete dissolution of “alone time” don’t register very high on my happiness barometer. There are certainly joyful moments – almost too many to count – but at the end of each day, I find myself more weary than gleeful. So, does fatherhood make you happy? Is the author correct in answering no?
To me, it’s a simple misuse of words. Happiness is a term that conjures up notions of euphoria, and physical and emotional pleasure. Happiness is felt when one’s favorite football team wins a big game. Happiness is the feeling of eating a favorite meal, seeing a great movie, or relaxing by the pool. It’s receiving a birthday present or buying the new car you’ve always wanted. Happiness is short-lived in most cases and still leaves a person craving more. Happiness is a good thing, but it can also be artificial, superficial, and easily lost.
The word Mr. Gilbert should have used is fulfilling. To do something that brings fulfillment usually includes bouts of happiness, but also includes hard work, emotional capital, time, and commitment. Just as Vince Lombardi reflected, the greatest fulfillment a man can find “is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.” Lombardi knew that to be fulfilled as an athlete, hard work and difficult challenges were going to be necessary. This is why his Green Bay Packers never measured their success by a single touchdown.
Something that is fulfilling is typically something that is also hard. It can also be sad and frustrating. Happiness doesn’t leave much room for the hard things. Happiness can be attained rather easily – but fulfillment is never found without effort.
So many new fathers probably reach a state of burnout when their expectations of pure joy and happiness are battered down by the day-to-day routines and difficulties of being a parent. Perhaps if we all rid ourselves of this happiness expectation and instead sought the enriching and spiritual feelings of true personal fulfillment, more of us would increase our commitment to fatherhood and do a better job at it.
Being a father means that we get to experience moments of unique happiness, but it also means that we get to embrace the challenges, hard times, and exhaustion. The weariness felt at the end of the day is coated with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. We don’t become fathers solely to be happy – we become fathers to share love and to feel the fulfillment of having unquestionably affected another human life for the better.
So, for aspiring fathers, fathers-to-be, and those like me who are new to this adventure – let’s stop believing that fatherhood should bring the most happiness we could ever imagine – for while we may find those moments occasionally – it’s the feeling of fulfillment that perseveres. So many people spend their whole lives searching for fulfillment, and we should appreciate that it found us, and calls us “dad.”