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:

Related posts from Growing Sideways

Marriage or children: Which is more important? Which should be?


4 thoughts on “How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

  1. Wow, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum. I rarely find happiness in the in-the-moment bad situations with my kids. I think of every time my son sits down for piano practice and it turns into an argument. Definitely no happiness there. On the other hand, when he gives a recital, I am so happy I could burst. In addition, unlike your ratio, I can’t create one because I find the in-the-moment situations to be many in count, but rarely high in intensity, so I can’t compare them to the happy situations (in the moment or reflective) which I find to be fewer in count, but very intense. So let’s hear it for intense happiness and being able to shrug off the day-to-day bad stuff.

  2. Thank you–very interesting, as always! It’s good to make time for reflectiveness, both in the moment and afterwards. Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy. Unlike our jobs, hobbies, eating habits, even our marriages and friendships, the decision to become a parent, once made, cannot be reversed. And so we have to find a way to come to terms with parenting’s lows. The best way I’ve found is to deliberately tap into and focus on those highs.

  3. It had never occurred to me that parents might be more preoccupied with the happiness question than the rest of the population. I see what you’re saying, though. It might be like if I buy a $30 pair of shoes I’m not going to fret much over whether I bought the right pair, but if I buy a $200 pair of shoes I’m going to look at them everyday and worry to some extent that I made a mistake (even if I threw away the receipt). So maybe the magnitude of the decision invites insecurity. And your last point, “The best way I’ve found is to deliberately tap into and focus on those highs” made me realize I take kind of an opposite approach: I try to rationalize the lows as good moments (the way I did in this post with Jay’s tantrum).

  4. I like the way you are looking at the “low moments” and feeling satisfaction of being immersed in life and your relationships, even during the time of the low points. It’s admirable that you can be in the moment and appreciate what’s happening—so many times it took me quite a while, years even, before I could see the low points as something satisfying, even though the bad times contribute to the entire experience as much as the good times do. It’s easy now to think back on “low moments” with my children—they’re grown up!— and some of those times are quite humorous upon reflection but didn’t seem humorous or satisfying at the time. What I’m trying to say is that I admire your attitude.

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