Of course I want my kids to be happy, but that is not my most important goal for them. Happiness is not my aim, but it can be a welcome by-product of a life well-lived. I feel that if I teach them how to be good people, then they will naturally be happy. I am not raising them to make themselves happy. I want to raise them to make others happy first – to lose themselves in service to other people (and hopefully, to God). If they do these things, then I hope their own happiness will follow.
What is happiness anyway? As Bob Dylan sings, “I’m halfway content most of the time.” That’s good enough for Bob, and it’s good enough for me.
During my infertile years, I used to torture myself by watching “A Baby Story” on TLC. Remember that show? Kinda cheesy, makes you choke up, and every episode is the same? Yeah, that one. Each episode followed a woman through the last few weeks of pregnancy, then the birth, and then a bit of the newborn phase. At the end of each episode, the producers must have asked each set of new parents the same question: “What do you hope for your child for the future?” Invariably, each mother would respond, “I just want him to be happy.”
“I just want him to be happy.”
The phrase just always rubbed me the wrong way. It would make me bristle. I felt like shouting at the TV (but that was probably because I was infertile and secretly hated that show but couldn’t look away). I would think, “If I were on this show, and if I were blessed with a baby, I would answer, ‘I want to raise him to be a good person. I want to raise him to be selfless and caring and a productive member of society.’”
I have always felt that if we raise our children with their own happiness as a goal, then we are setting them up for a lifetime of selfishness. I believe that true happiness is found from losing oneself, from thinking outwardly, and from service.
One of my best friends, a mother of five young children, says that whenever she gets stressed or overwhelmed or depressed, she immediately turns her thoughts outward. “Who can I serve? Who needs my help today?” She has no free time to give, and yet she is constantly looking out for others in her neighborhood and our church. She babysits when a mother has to go to the doctor; she brings meals to the sick; she gives rides. She manages to put her own family’s needs first, but they still get to see her service to others. She is a great example to me.
Ralph Waldo Emerson can, of course, say all of this better (i.e., more succinctly) than I can. He wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I agree. My purpose is not to make them happy; their purpose is not to be happy. I hope my children understand: If you are useful, honorable, compassionate, and make a difference, then you will give yourself the best shot at happiness. (Or at least at being “halfway content most of the time.”)
And now two of them are crying. They are not happy.