How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

Yesterday Jay fell into a perfect storm of a tantrum.  He woke up feeling off because of the time change, then missed his nap, fell asleep in the car on the way to get Caroline, and really, really did not want to be woken up to eat dinner.  Utter earth-rending calamity ensued.   Our only salvation was a one-minute YouTube video about a toy tow truck that Jay asked to watch over and over again—“I want to see the movie with the small car on the big car”—until it was time for bed.

Jay last night, recovering from his meltdown

It wasn’t an evening to live through again, but it wasn’t so bad as to make me question our overall decision to become parents.   Which brings me to a TED talk I watched last night by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate who’s often credited with inventing the field of behavioral economics.

The main point of the talk is that there are two kinds of happiness: “Experiential happiness,” which is being happy in the moment; and “reflective happiness” (my term, not his) which we feel retrospectively, when we take stock of what we’ve accomplished in life.  Kahneman stresses that the two are very different things, noting that the correlation between people who are happy in-the-moment and people who are satisfied with their lives is relatively weak (only about .5)

Parenthood would seem to illustrate this distinction perfectly.  I certainly wouldn’t say I felt “happy” dealing with Jay’s tantrum last night, but I find the overall project of raising Jay and Wally to be the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

At the same time, I don’t agree with Kahneman’s argument, at least not as it’s used to conclude, as an article in New York Magazine did a couple years ago, that having kids makes people less happy.

The first reason is that, on balance, raising Jay and Wally produces more happy moments than stressful or boring moments.  If I were to tally it up, I’d say the “happy” moments outweigh the “boring/stressful” moments by about 3:2.  And if you account for the intensity of the moments the imbalance is even greater (the happy moments being a lot happier than the stressful moments are stressful or the boring moments are boring).

The second and more consequential reason I disagree with Kahneman’s dichotomy is that “satisfaction” is not something we feel only upon reflection; it’s something we feel in the moment, too.  I have in mind the kind of satisfaction Matthew Crawford wrote about in his best-selling book from a few years ago, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an inquiry into the value of work,” where he talked about the satisfaction he gets from working on motorcycles: immersing himself in a problem, figuring out how something works, devising a solution.

And that’s why, even on bad nights like last night, I think parenting still stacks up pretty well on an in-the-moment basis.  Jay’s tantrum didn’t make me happy, per se, but there was something very satisfying about the deep immersion in life and in a relationship with another person that I experienced as I helped him work through it.

Here’s Kahneman’s talk:

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