The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

Yesterday I wrote about how the concept of “friction”—things that slow us down and lead to inefficiency—can be applied to raising kids. I argued that while Jay and Wally create a lot of friction in my life, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to think about friction and family life. In fact, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have thought about it more than I have and have come to a very different conclusion than I did yesterday.  In their family, the reduction of friction is one of the highest goals.

Stevenson and Wolfers are economists.  They were profiled two weeks ago in The New York Times, which is where I learned about them.  She is 40, he is 39.  They are partnered but unmarried and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Matilda.  They are also big figures in the sub-field of economics known putatively as “lovenomics”—the study of the economic tradeoffs and happiness calculations involved with life decisions like getting married and having kids.

The theme of the article was how Stevenson and Wolfers, who are both on the faculty at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, use their academic research to guide their family life.  They think purposefully about the tradeoffs between different activities and they try to strike the maximal balance between leisure, money, professional achievement, and all the other good things in life.

To achieve this balance they hire people to do many of the tasks they don’t want to do themselves.  As the Times article put it: “If you’re relatively affluent, as they are, they recommend outsourcing child care and domestic chores so you can spend your time on more leisure or economically worthwhile pursuits. That’s what they do.” Stevenson and Wolfers hire people to do their cleaning, their grocery shopping, and to drive them to and from work.  They also have a nanny who takes care of Matilda from 8am-7pm every weekday.

Most of the choices they make are typical for people in their tax bracket and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them as such.  I have plenty of friends who have more money than time in their lives and I know that that for them, hiring people to help around the house just makes life more manageable.  What’s more unusual about Stevenson and Wolfers is the philosophy behind their choices, particularly in the context of parenting.

In a story in The Washington Post that ran a few days after the Times profile, Stevenson said she tries to “maximize the quality time” she spends with Matilda and to minimize the amount of time she and Wolfers spend on the tedious, boring, and frustrating sides of parenting.  In practice, this means that they have their nanny feed Matilda breakfast, get her dressed, pack her diaper bag, etc.  And because they outsource so much of the drudgery of parenting, they can spend more of the time they do have with Matilda on fun activities: coloring, singing, dancing.

This seems perfectly reasonable and I understand the need for childcare help when you have a demanding job. Yet as I read about Wolfers and Stevenson a queasy feeling started to well in my stomach.  On a gut level, something about an efficiency-maximizing approach to family life seemed wrong to me.  I don’t like boredom or frustration either, but instinctively it seems to me that it’s important to have at least a measure of them in your life.  When I thought about why that might be, the answer I kept coming back to was friction.

As I wrote yesterday, friction makes it easier to steer.  But it occurred to me last night that that’s only half it’s value in the context of family life.  Because not only does friction make it possible to steer—it also makes it possible to feel.

Over the weekend I wrote about how I spent my birthday taking care of Jay and Wally.  The day featured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of frustration—just the daily brew that Wolfers and Stevenson try to avoid.  But the slowness of the day—the absence of efficiency and top-shelf stimulation—left its own kind of quiet impression.

The late-novelist David Foster Wallace, who would have turned 50 today, also thought that friction is a necessary condition for feeling.  Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011, a little more than two years after he took his own life; it is set in an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois and it’s about boredom.  Wallace left a note with the manuscript that began to explain why he thought boredom was so important:

Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.

I don’t know if real awareness lies on the other side of boredom or if it’s part and parcel to the feeling—and bliss is a little far-out as a description for what I experienced on my birthday.  But I do agree with Wallace that in order to really feel alive you need to be willing to let some friction creep into your life.

American culture emphasizes making life easier, smoother, less painful, more efficient. But if you go too far in that direction you end up as a body sailing blissfully through a vacuum.  Friction lets you feel life, experience its texture, take its shape.  In this sense there’s no better source of friction than raising kids.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kid make it easier to steer

A new version of the American Dream


The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kids make it easier to steer

I’ve read several articles in the last week that have set my mind racing.  The first was the series of essays by Walter Russell Mead that served as the basis for my recent post “A new version of the American Dream.”  The second was an essay by a psychologist at Swarthmore named Barry Schwartz that appeared in The New York Times last Thursday.  Schwartz wrote about “friction” in the economy—forces that slow commerce and lead to inefficiency.  He argued that while capitalism pursues efficiency at all costs, as a society it helps sometimes to have some friction.

Over the weekend it occurred to me that Schwartz’s argument is relevant to family life, too–that his definition of friction is a nice way of explaining the real value of the constraints and commitments, boredom, frustration, and fatigue that come with raising kids.

Here, according to Schwartz, are two examples of friction in economic life: The first is a company with a bloated payroll; the second is a mortgage lender that takes longer than it should to process loan applications.  In both these cases business is not getting done as fast or as cheaply as it could be and the free market doesn’t let stragglers hang around; it blindly wrings inefficiency out of the economy.  If one company is bloated, a leaner one will take its business; if one bank is slow to process mortgage applications, prospective homebuyers will go somewhere else for a loan.

This is mostly a good thing, Schwartz says.  He argues, “It is important to understand that increased efficiency is the only way a society’s standard of living will improve.”  A good example of greater efficiency leading to a higher standard of living is the way agriculture has changed over the last 100 years.  In 1900, in the last years of era of the family farm, food costs accounted for 40 percent of the average family’s household budget; today, thanks to the efficiencies of agro-conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto that have replaced the family farm, food accounts for only eight percent of the average family’s budget.  This leaves a lot of money left over for luxury and leisure.

So less friction (and more efficiency) is good.  And if you believe, the men running for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s the only good.  But Schwartz agrues that while too much efficiency may never be bad for a company, it can create all sorts of problems for a society.

He gives several examples of the perils of too little friction.  They range from easy access to credit cards, which leads people to buy all sorts of stuff they don’t not really want, to the popularity of home equity loans which (until recently) allowed homeowners to live beyond their means.  Too much efficiency was at the root of the subprime collapse, too.  Banks made too many loans too fast; they thought they understood the risks they were assuming but in reality they didn’t have a clue; and our whole economic system was already out of control by the time most people realized something was wrong.

Schwartz uses the metaphor of a speeding car to dramatize why friction can be a good thing: “The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.”

So now to kids and friction.  Jay and Wally slow down just about everything I do in life.  It takes fifteen extra minutes to get out the door when I’m bringing them along; childcare responsibilities mean I have about half as much time to write as I did before Jay was born; and when a friend emailed recently proposing we meet in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, he might as well have been proposing we meet on the moon, so utterly infeasible was the whole idea.

A lot of the time I chafe against the friction that Jay and Wally create: I wish I could get out the door faster; I wish I had more time to write; I really wish I could climb that mountain. But at the same time, and as I’ve written in the past, I think there’s a lot of value in the friction kids provide.  Caroline and I can’t turn our lives on a dime, which means we have to think harder about where we want to go and proceed with more commitment once we get there.

Because I can’t quit working to travel the way I did when I was 25, I’ve had to be more thoughtful about the type of work I do and how it fits with the other things I value in life. And in a few years the boys will start school and we’ll be even more rooted in a place than we are now.  Sometimes it’s nice to have the option to move if you don’t like where you are; more often I find it’s useful to have pressure—friction—forcing me to make the best of it wherever I am.

The downside of kid-induced-friction, of course, is that it’s a lot harder to change course once you start down the wrong path.  It’s harder to extricate from a bad marriage when kids are involved and it’s a lot easier to change jobs when you don’t have to worry about the financial responsibility of taking care of a family.  But so far I’ve found that having kids has been more helpful in the sense of giving me a point in the distance to aim for than harmful in the sense of rolling towards a tree and being unable to turn.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

A new version of the American Dream

These are the things I try not to do within an hour of going to bed: drink caffeine; eat sugar; use the Internet; fight with Caroline.  To that list of late-evening prohibitions let me add a fifth—no reading articles by Walter Russell Mead.  I made that mistake yesterday.  His three-part series on restoring the American Dream set my mind racing and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally got the horses back in the barn.  What follows is a brief recap of Mead’s argument about how the American Dream is changing and some thoughts about how I see a new version of the American Dream playing out in my own life.

According to Mead the first iteration of the American Dream was the dream of the individual family farm.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s version of the American Dream.  For two centuries the family farm was the organizing unit of American social and economic life; it defined how family members interacted with each other; it provided Americans with food, shelter and the material necessities of life; it was the backdrop against which people lived out the American version of the good life.

But the dream of the family farm began to founder in the late-19th century.  Sweeping geopolitical forces were to blame: the best farm land was already taken meaning new generations of Americans had to settle for marginal tracts in places like Oklahoma that were never meant to sustain agriculture; and improvements in agricultural production led to a glut of corn and wheat, and thus lower prices for farmers when they brought their crops to market.  The world changed, fast, and it left the family farm behind.

It took almost half-a-century for a new version of the American Dream to develop.  There was a lot of political and cultural turmoil in the intervening years, just like there’s a lot of political and cultural turmoil now.  People feared that the end of family farming meant the end of the American way of life.  But then a second version of the American Dream emerged, and it promised even greater prosperity and greater freedom than the family farm had before it.  Mead calls this second version the dream of the “suburban homestead.”

This is a dream that most of us recognize because it was vibrant in our lifetimes and has only recently begun to fade.  It was the dream of Leave it to Beaver: Dad worked, mom stayed home, the kids went to school, and life was awash in inexpensive, mass-produced goods (canned vegetables! washing machines!) that made life freer and easier than it had ever been before.

But now the dream of the suburban homestead has begun to come apart.  The forces unraveling it are as sweeping and unstoppable as the forces that sundered the dream of the family farm a century earlier.  For one, the good land is all taken (the nicest suburbs have become astronomically expensive; Caroline laments that there’s no way we could ever afford to buy a house in the suburban-DC neighborhood where she grew up).  And for two, the jobs that supported the suburban dream on a national scale are disappearing—either outsourced overseas or automated out of existence.  So if the suburban dream is dead, too, the question is—what takes its place?

Caroline and I have thought a lot about this over the last five years, though not on the grand scale that Mead thinks about.  For us the question has been more personal, as we’ve tried to figure out what kind of lives we want for our family and ourselves.  We’ve tried to use two principles to guide the big lifestyle choices we’ve had to make: We want control over our time and we want our lives to feel coherent.  I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

First—control over our own time.  For me, this has meant freelancing instead of working for a company.  In my twenties I had a few traditional jobs though none of them lasted very long.  On a gut level I had a hard time swallowing the idea that someone else would tell me where I needed to be from 9am-6pm five days a week, or would dictate how many days I could take off to spend with my family around Christmas.  I might have been willing to accept these constraints if I’d found work that I was incredibly excited to do, but I never did.  And at the same time I’d been given enough opportunity in life to make it feasible for me to strike out on my own.

As is often the case the price of time has been money.  I make a lot less than most graduates of the Harvard Class of 2003.  The key realization for me, though, was that all the extra dollars I would have made if I’d become a lawyer were not worth the sacrifice in personal freedom I would have had to make to earn those dollars.  And this, I think, is a calculation that rings true for many Americans who feel like they have enough money and enough stuff but not enough freedom in their daily lives to spend their time the way they want to.  (Of course, there are also many Americans on the lower-end of the class scale for whom this doesn’t ring true at all; contra Charles Murray, they’d eagerly trade time for the opportunity to work hard at a job that paid well.)

Second—coherence.  One of the things I like least about the suburban ideal is the way it divides life into discrete roles and identities.  Work and home are separate spheres.  Men and women perform separate roles.  Kids race from school to Cub Scouts to soccer practice.  There is a whole lot of moving parts, but it’s not necessarily the case that they all pull in the same direction or all reflect the same underlying values.

I don’t like the idea of my “work” persona and my “home” persona being distinct.  It feels discordant to me that I’d go off to a job and spend my whole day with one group of people, thinking and acting in one particular kind of way, and then I’d go home and be with a different group of people, thinking and acting in a different kind of way.  I want the cohesiveness of feeling that all the parts of my life are integrated; I want the coherence of feeling like I’m completely and fully myself in every part of my day. (I guess you could say that, in a sense, what I’m after is a 21st-century version of the family farm.)

To some extent this prioritization of time and coherence is idiosyncratic; these values reflect my particular disposition and the particular family culture that Caroline and I have put together, and certainly the lives we’ve crafted for ourselves have only been possible because of the above-average rates of education and opportunity we’ve received.  But at the same time it seems clear to me that our choices have been shaped by broader cultural currents; that they reflect a changing idea of what the American Dream looks like in practice.

It makes sense that each iteration of the American Dream would be shaped in response to the one that came before it.  The suburban ideal was desirable in large part because it was not the family farm.  Blue- and white-collar jobs freed people from having to toil on the land from dawn to dusk.  The consumer products revolution freed people from having to provide every material necessity by their own hands.  Safeguards like union jobs, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare—the whole social safety net extending from employers to the federal government—meant that families were no longer one false step away from calamity.

But progress had its price.  Once you get past the surface warts of the suburban ideal (the McMansions, the SUVs, etc.) it seems clear to me that the real price of the suburban dream was paid in time and coherence.  The coherent life of the family farm was broken into discrete suburban roles and identities that divided work from home and men from women; and the suburban economy instantiated all sorts of restrictions on how people spend their time: the time-clock, the 9-5, two weeks paid vacation, and (most banefully of all) the daily commute, which researchers routinely identify as the feature of modern life most anathema to personal happiness.

Last night I talked with Caroline about these ideas and when I got to the end she said, “So, what is it?  What is the third American Dream?”  I don’t know, of course, and Mead says he doesn’t know either.  The suburban ideal would have been hard to imagine in 1890 and it’s just as hard to picture what the iconic American lifestyle will look like sixty years from now.

But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.

Links to Walter Russell Mead’s essays on the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part I: The Crisis of the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part II: Recasting the Dream

Beyond Blue Part III: The Power of Infostructure 

Baby boom

When Jay was born in May 2009 Caroline and I were only the second couple among our extended group of friends to become parents.  In world-historical terms 28 wasn’t young to be having a first kid, but in our peer group it felt a little like we’d taken to the frontier.

Things have changed since then.  A couple months ago I spent a weekend in South Carolina with some college friends.  Our first night there we were out at a bar, playing pool and drinking pitchers of Dale’s Pale Ale, when one of the guys gathered us all around to announce that his wife was pregnant with their first kid, due June 3.  Euphoria ensued.  Then when things had settled down another guy said “Actually, I have an announcement, too.” Pause. “June 2.” Pause. “Twins!” Pandemonium.

So, 2012  is shaping up to be a bumper crop of babies in our social circle, which for comparative purposes, is comprised almost entirely of white, college-educated people born in 1980 or 1981 (making them 30 or 31 today).

With Caroline’s help* I put together a graph showing the percentages of our friends with kids by age.  Out of 45 friends, only three people (6%) had kids by age 28.  Five people (11%) had kids by age 29.  Then a big jump at age 30, when 6 people had kids, bringing the total number of parents to 11 (24%). I didn’t include age 31 in the graph because the year is still in progress.  But we have several friends who are set to deliver their first kids at age 31 and several more who have told us they’re trying to get pregnant- so if anything, age 31 stands to be an even more fertile year than age 30.

To put this trend in context, here are some statistics for the US as a whole:

It’s too early to say how my friends will square with these statistics but if I had to guess I’d say that they’ll become parents later than national averages would suggest.  This seems particularly likely since only 42% of my male friends are married. Among my very closest friends, however, the story is a different.  I lived with five other guys in college.  Four of the six of us will be parents by this summer.  It’s a small sample, but I think at least to some degree fertility has begotten fertility- you see someone you know well raising kids and you think, “I could do that, too.”

*I should note that Caroline’s involvement in this post is limited largely to helping me figure out how to use Excel.  She’s not at all complicit in the methods I used to construct the chart, which are not quite up to snuff in the eyes of a demography PhD.

Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

Earlier this month I wrote a post called “How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness.”  A reader responded with what I took to be a gentle and well-placed admonishment: “Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy.”  Nevertheless, here I am with another post on how kids affect parental well-being.

The term “well-being” as opposed to “happiness” is the preferred nomenclature of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work I’ve been reading today as part of a story I’m writing about his colleague and disciple Angela Duckworth (who, for her part, studies character traits like self-control and determination that correlate with achievement in school and in life).

Seligman is a lion in psychology—one of the most important members of his field over the last century.  He’s the founder of the “positive psychology” movement which he defines in his most recent book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” as “exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living.” The “positive” in positive psychology is meant to distinguish the pursuit from traditional branches of psychology focused on negative aspects of experience like depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, etc.

In “Flourish” Seligman argues that there are five components of well-being that go by the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

I thought it would be interesting to rate on a scale, from -5 to +5, how becoming a parent has impacted my life in each of those five dimensions.  Here goes:

Positive Emotion:
This refers to how often you experience the best feelings in life, among which Seligman includes “pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort.”  When assessing Jay and Wally’s impact in this realm I’m also going to dock points for negative emotions like anger, boredom, and frustration that they sometimes inspire.

Overall, Jay and Wally have greatly enhanced the quantity of positive emotion in my life.  And these contributions are not close to being outweighed by negative emotions. I’m definitely prone to anger and frustration but I’ve found that I tend to experience those feelings no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whereas the possibility of positive emotion seems to me to be much more situationally dependent.  So basically, I’m not much more angry/frustrated/bored as a Dad than I was before Jay, but I’m a lot more rapt/ecstatic/comforted.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Positive Emotion a +4.

Seligman defines engagement as “flow”: “being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.”

This is a tough one to rate.  On the one hand, when I’m up at 5:30am with Wally the minutes pass like crawling across a parking lot littered with broken glass.  But on the other hand, I have found that parenthood is a nice antidote to self-consciousness.  I remember looking in the mirror while holding Jay a couple weeks after he was born: I was so much more interested in the baby I was holding than in my own reflection, and I think something like that change of focus has maintained over the last 2+ years.

But overall this diminishment of self-consciousness (or diminishment of focus on my-self) has been less profound than the anti-flow impact parenthood has had, in terms of making me more preoccupied with activities like chores and household routines.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Engagement a -2.

On the plus side, I’ve formed two extraordinary new relationships with Jay and Wally.  And Caroline and I get to share the intimacy of having and raising kids together.

On the minus side, Caroline and I share the intimacy of raising kids together. Our marriage revolves around Jay and Wally, which was made apparent the other night when we went out to dinner for Caroline’s birthday, just the two of us, and remembered a long forgotten secret: just how much we like being together as adults. (We intend, btw, to improve on this by kicking Wally out of our bed as soon as he gets over his current cold.)

And in terms of other relationships—friends, family—having kids has been a net negative to this point.  In a practical sense there’s just not as much time or mental energy to go around.  And on a dispositional level, as I wrote over the summer, becoming a parent has narrowed my ethical circle: the stronger my ethical attachments to Jay and Wally, the weaker my ethical attachments to all the other people in my life.

On the bright side, I suspect that Jay and Wally’s impact on our marriage and on all the other relationships in our lives is more negative now than it will be even in a few years when they’re a little more independent and don’t consume quite so much of our mental and physical energy.

Still, for now I rate parenthood’s contribution to Relationships a -3.

Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.”  Here, parenting is a home run winner.  For reasons I’ve written about a lot,  Jay basically solved my longstanding meaning problem the day he was born.

I rate parenthood’s contribution to Meaning a +5.

There are some confounding factors here.  In the three years before Jay was born I was pretty lacking in career direction, and Reversion to the Mean suggests that my early-thirties were likely to be a more fruitful period in my professional life regardless of how many kids I had.

That said, I have found Jay and Wally to be a spur to work harder and to be more serious about figuring out what I want to do in life.  But I hesitate to give too high a rating here because the optimal conditions for Achievement would seem to be having a lot of career direction and not having any kids to worry about.

Still, given my particular career circumstances at the time Jay was born and the changes that have happened since, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Achievement a +1.

Totaling it all up, becoming a parent has improved my well-being by 5 points.  Seligman doesn’t provide a scale to evaluate what that means, but my intuition says it’s a pretty big positive change.  At the same time, Seligman warns that when people rate their own happiness, 70% of the score they give themselves tends to be determined by the mood they’re in at the time they perform the rating, and only 30% of the rating tends to be determined by analytic judgment.  And, despite the fact that Jay, Wally, and I are all suffering from our first colds of the year, I’m in a pretty good mood today.

I’d be very interested to know how readers of the blog assess the impact of having kids on their own lives in these categories.  Please share in the comments if inclined.

Building a family culture

Yesterday I wrote about how Jay is beginning to recognize the meaning behind events that take place at home: He hears the sound of water falling into a metal pot and he knows that signifies Mom standing at the kitchen sink preparing to make tea.

After the post I emailed a friend who reminded me that what I was really writing about was culture—and in this case, family culture.  Within our small domestic space we have our rituals and routines and if you spend enough time amidst them you begin to understand what they mean, just as it is with all families, in their own unique ways.

My friend is a graduate student in philosophy and he sent me an essay that provides an academic context for thinking about culture. (I’ve posted the essay here if you want to take a look.)  Specifically, the essay defines culture as the “webs of significance” in which we live, and it defines the study of culture as an effort to untangle those webs so that we arrive at the root significance of an event—so that we understand what it really means to the people participating in it.

In a moment I’m going to get back to Jay and our family’s culture, but first I wanted to share an example from the essay which I thought was pretty illuminating, and which I thought about several times last night as I was pacing Wally back to sleep.

The essay talks about what it takes to tell the difference between someone whose eye is twitching and someone who is deliberately winking.  On the surface the two events look identical, but of course, “The difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows.”

So how to tell the difference between a twitch and a wink?  You have to understand the context—the culture—in which the event is taking place. (And I should add that the author doesn’t stop at two possible meanings for the event.  He talks about the challenge of distinguishing between a twitch, a wink, a parody of a wink, and someone at home in front of a mirror practicing a parody of a wink.)

One of the most exciting things about having kids, for me, is the chance it provides to build a family culture.  Growing up, I remember the dining table jokes, and the sounds of my mom making herself lunch in the kitchen, and how I could tell my dad’s mood just by the way the plates clattered as he put clean dishes back in the cupboard.  By the time I was 18 I was exhilarated to get out and see more of the world, but eventually I started to miss the intimacy, the familiarity, of living as a family. And regaining that has been one of the most fulfilling things for me about the small orbit Jay, Wally, Caroline, and I make together each day.

Anyway, when I sat down to write this morning what I actually meant to do was give a quick list of the ways, in addition to the ones I talked about yesterday, that Jay has become attuned to our family culture:

  • He came into our bedroom one morning a few weeks ago and saw a towel spread out on the bed.  “Wally threw up?” he asked.  Indeed, he had.
  • During the morning hours, Jay knows that when I come downstairs around noon it means I’m going to have lunch. “Make the sandwich,” he yells up to me from the family room.  When I walk downstairs a couple hours later, he knows what that means, too.  “I don’t wanna take a nap,” he whines before I’ve made it even three steps.
  • The other day Caroline and Jay were in the supermarket, looking at all the different kinds of oatmeal. Caroline couldn’t remember which kind we buy so she asked Jay if he did.  He surveyed for a second and then pointed (correctly): Country Choice Steel Cut Irish Oats
  • And lastly, yesterday morning Jay was playing in his room when he heard me open a dresser drawer. “Are you getting dressed Daddy?” he asked.  I told him I was, and he replied, “Wear the blue shirt with the sailboats,” which both impressed me and made me worry that I’d been wearing my Cape Cod t-shirt a little too often recently.

Wally last night, feeling *really* excited he gets to play with a placemat.

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?