people are confused about happiness

My cousin just sent me this article, and it was so beautiful I had to share it here. Emily Rapp writes about her relationship with her terminally ill son. She asks and answers the question “When your child doesn’t have a future, how do you parent?”

OK, I don’t want to be totally morbid, but the article reminded me of unschooling. And I realize that I shouldn’t even be writing about this, because it’s way too easy to be like, “Oh, so, unschooling is like parenting a kid who’s going to die? Because you don’t care about your kid’s future at all?”

No. Not like that. But I thought of those kids in the Race To Nowhere documentary, who were saying stuff like, “I know I’m supposed to be good at all of this, but I don’t know why…I know I have to get into a good college and then get a good job. But I don’t think it really matters if I’m happy.”

Parents are always saying, “The only thing I want is for my child to be happy.” And that might be true. I don’t know– I’m not a parent. I’ll probably look back at this when I’m a parent and think, “You did not know anything about anything.” But it seems to me that even if parents only want their kids to be happy, they are often talking about future happiness. As in, their kid will be happy because of all of the hard work that led to the success that led to the happiness.


People are clearly confused about happiness. That’s why professors at Harvard are always writing new books about it, and those books are always becoming bestsellers. That’s why the New York Times has so many articles about it. That’s why we all talk about it. We’re trying to figure it out. What the hell is it? Is it the same for everyone? Is it totally different? Do we have to work for it? How hard? What does that work look like? Do we even recognize it when we have it? Is it completely obvious? Does it involve delicious food? Or should we diet?

We all want to get to happiness, but we don’t seem to know how. But somewhere along the line we collectively decided that for kids, getting to happiness meant putting in a lot of years of effort first. Starting with the right preschool.

In her essay about love and parenting, Emily Rapp writes about how incredibly fulfilling just being with her toddler son can be. I know all about this, because it’s still one of my mom’s favorite topics. She always loved to just be with her kids. To see what happened. To play.

Sometimes I catch myself getting seriously stressed out. I wrote about one time in particular here, on my other blog. I’m ambitious. I’m one of those people who has a hard time with weekends sometimes, because I want to get back to work. Maybe because as a kid, weekends were the same as every other day, and I was always busy with something I cared about. I get worked up. I think, “I’m not doing enough! I have to succeed!” And then I look at my husband and I think, “I have love. I have this whole other person, with a face, and ears, and big shoulders, and he loves me and I love him and I am so incredibly lucky to have that in my life.” And it occurs to me that this is the only thing that can ever really matter.

And then I forget again. Because that’s life.

But nonschooling is about reminding ourselves of the things that matter. Reminding ourselves that no one is really sure how to get to future happiness,  and no one is certain how much certain kinds of success contribute to it, but I think things might be better for everyone if we just spent more time being happy now. Kids, too. Kids’ time and happiness is valuable, too.

(There is a time and a place for dieting– but sometimes you just need a banana split to make you happy. I know I do. I had a dream about one the other night. Not even kidding)

23 comments to people are confused about happiness

  • That story was amazing. Made me cry at my desk.

    And I think the message is amazing as well. If we can get away from some idealised future happiness as the goal, and focus a bit more on the here and now, I think the world would be a better place.

    Not saying at all that we should forget the future altogether – that’s probably even more dangerous – but as John Lennon said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

    The balance is hard to find, but I don’t think we’ve struck it. Not yet.

  • Funny – I came here right after reading that particular story. I think the thing about life is that it can’t be all one way or another, unless you are in an extreme situation like that family is. Much as I enjoy being in the present with my kids, I know I also have some responsibility to help them plan for the future. It’s a balancing act, really, between our time together now and their lives in the future without me. The nice thing about non-schooling is that it’s better balanced than a schooled life, with more “now” time to enjoy.

    • kate

      You’re right– it has to be a balance. And I definitely didn’t mean people shouldn’t plan for the future at all! I hope I didn’t imply that in a major way. I might have.

      :-)

  • No, I think you made the plea for balance nicely. It’s true. What exactly are we working toward? Does real life start only after college graduation? Is it all preparation until then? That’s the line we’re sold, anyway.

  • Hey Kate, I love your blog. Because the writing is good, because you are so free with your opinions, and because my kids have been unschooled their whole lives. You provide a glimpse of life after unschooling. And it looks fine.

    Here is a glimpse of parenting: any of us might die soon. That is the fundamental ache of parenting. And having watched a couple of parents die young, I can tell you that unschooling is an ENORMOUS comfort in the face of this truth. I look around at other families furiously working two jobs, having sent their children away to various institutional situations presumably so everyone can have more money and I am baffled to my core. Institutions do not create happiness. More money does not create happiness. And time will eventually separate us.

    Future happiness is a myth. You must be present to win. Our time is our priority, our wealth, our primary source.

  • I don’t think it’s morbid at all to point out that parents who expect that their child will reach adulthood can learn from parents who know theirs is going to die young. We are all going to die–no one has figured out a way around that yet. It’s all just a matter of timing. And I think it’s important to remind ourselves so we can remember to slow down and stop rushing toward the future so fast.

    Your point is excellent about happiness (if all we want is happiness for our children, then we will always be chasing something that we can’t even identify. ), and partly for that reason, frankly, “happiness” is not my number one goal for my children (of course I *hope* that for them, but it’s not what I’m training them for). Here is what I want: I want them to be strong, compassionate, and grateful. I think those three things will bring them joy also, but I don’t think happiness or joy are things you can achieve by trying for them. If my boys are strong, then they will always be able to get up and try again, as often as that is necessary to achieve what they want to achieve, and they will always be able to stand up for the things they believe in. If they are compassionate, they will always treat others kindly which is important for creating the kind of world we want to live in. I hope they will also treat themselves kindly. If they are grateful, then they will always be content with what they have and that is as close to happiness as a person can be trained for. (I took “strong and compassionate” from someone I read about who was a holocaust survivor and who pointed out that those are the two qualities that were lacking in most people in Germany during that time–either they had no compassion, or if they had compassion they had no strength to stand up for it–those are good reasons to want those two things but obviously they are not my only two reasons).

  • Melissa Joy

    I really enjoyed this perspective, and I completely agree. I was unschooled until college, and I only went to college because I wanted to try the experience. I went to junior college and graduated with an AA before I couldn’t restrain my maternal urges any longer and wanted to finally have children with my husband. Anyway, my mom was always very uncomfortable when people would ask about our future, and a lot of times either say “we’ll see,” “let’s up to them”, or “none of your business”. ha! I love my mom. I know now, as a mother, why that made her so uncomfortable. People spend so much time striving for the future in a way that makes them completely scarce in the life that is right now. Yes, we need to plan and invest, but never ever at the expense of being able to say if life ended right now “oh my, if I ONLY KNEW! I have so many regrets!” I love spending time with my children and my husband, and I have to stay home and shut myself in for seasons at a time to get away from all of the pressure to think ahead instead of just enjoy them now.

    Parents, enjoy your children. Make time for your family every day. Do something memorable each and every day, and make a note of it on your calendar. It doesn’t have to be expensive, heavy on time or take a lot of effort, but do something MEMORABLE. Love them and study their faces, their smiles, their cries, their cuddles. Get muscle memory of your hugs, picture memory of their eyes, audio memory of their giggles and words.

    Love, love, love.

  • What frustrates me the most about my past was how we ‘chased’ homes in certain neighborhoods to get into the better schools. Now that my daughters are grown, I see the immense fallacy of it all. We pulled our youngest from high school because it was literally making her sick — she later got a GED on her own.

    To all the young marrieds I meet, I tell them, “Buy a house and stay there, if possible. Don’t worry about school districts. Make the most of where you are.” — allowing for the fact that some people, like me, just don’t have the time/energy/focus to effectively school their children at home, which is why I’m also an advocate for neighborhood unschools, that we pay for directly.

    • Alicja

      “We pulled our youngest from high school because it was literally making her sick — she later got a GED on her own.”

      I so wish it were possible for me.

      I’m in high school myself, and having similar problems. Or rather I’m having the problem with hating myself, because I can’t make school the most important thing in my life, as my parents are expecing me to.

      And I found this blog because yet again I set on a fruitless search for a way of making myself stop skipping school and stop hating school – and myself.

      This is probably the wrong place, but I can’t really tell anyone anyway. Whenever I read articles about homeschooling or unschooling it makes me want to cry. Yes, I only got 2 years left and everyone expects me to just bear with it. But I’m… not sure I can.

      • kate

        I sent you an email with this in it, but I was to also share my response on the blog:
        Remember that there is always life after school. Being an adult is amazing. Even if you don’t have the options you need and want right now, you will. You can make them for yourself. But for now, maybe you should look into apprenticeship? Finding someone successful who is doing what you want to do, and spending time with them. You can pick your own teachers. And they can connect you to a bigger world.

  • Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve met far too many people who will work a job, any job, for the money over the lifetime happiness it brings. It makes absolutely no sense to me. I’d far rather have happiness in my life.

    (I can’t remember how I came to your blog, but I found it through some internet surfing a couple of days ago. Not homeschooled and not a homeschool parent, but you do have a lot of interesting things to say, so I’m here. ;) )

  • “”There is a time and a place for dieting– but sometimes you just need a banana split to make you happy.”" I think that should go in my quote journal. lol I’ve gotten so addicted to Ben & Jerry’s “banana split”. It’s awesome. But I allow myself only so much at a time. Ugh. lol

  • My children are unschooled. I always get amazing compliments about them, they are always happy and full of smiles. Not to mention the inseparable sibling relationship because they have never been separated (by school or anything else). I am amazed at how creative they are. They know more about farming than my husband and i did when we bought it 5 years ago. I loved the article at life.salon. People really don’t know what they are missing out on by sending their kids to school.

  • Kate Robinson

    Happy you are writing! Thought you would appreciate this…(from Isha Foundation)
    The only reason why you are unhappy is because you are trying to be happy ~ Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

  • I just read your piece, “A Homeschooler Goes to College,” on Salon and just wanted to say, “Hooray for you!” I loved the piece and was so grateful to see it out there. I didn’t bother reading the comments on Salon because I know the kind of narrow-minded and fearful things that people will say (I wrote a piece about home/unschooling my son a couple of years ago for Babble.com, which then got picked up by the NYT, so I know what it is like). You’re right, people want to hear about homeschooling, especially the point of view of kids/adults who have been there. Keep writing!

    • kate

      This is fantastic!! And now I even know what you look like :-)
      I can’t believe I didn’t know about this article. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Hi Kate,

    I just posted this piece to the Secrets of Mom’s Facebook page and a friend’s Facebook wall. I looked at “Skipping School” today because as I was walking with a friend this morning, we discussed homeschooling. It’s such an unknown for me. I was in a “processing plant” growing up so mass producing and canning is all I know. lol. :)

    My friend has been considering homeschooling. Her main concern is that kids may miss out on the socializing aspect or that she will sleep in with the kids and end up doing “night school”. For me, there is alot of mystery around “skipping school”.

    Want to do a guest post for the moms who aren’t homeschooling, but are curious to learn more? :)

    • kate

      Hi Liz!! Thanks for sharing this!

      I want to say yes to a full guest post, but right now I’m swamped, and I still owe someone an article from months ago. Can you remind me in a bit? If you want to use anything I’ve already written, please feel free! Or if you want me to write 1-2 paragraphs on a specific related topic, just shoot me an email with the topic, and I’ll find time for that.

  • Sacha

    I’ve been feeling bombarded with all these parenting articles in the last couple days about the dangers of happiness, then I found this blog post. Thank you. I find nothing wrong with happiness and doing everything I can to cultivate it for my kids, and you are correct that happiness is often used to mean in the future, but if you don’t have it in the now you won’t in the future anyway. My therapist told me last week that one of the things I have going for me is that I’m actually not worried about the future with my kids. They’re fine now, and if they’re not fine, we’ll deal with it. I’ve let go of all those goals parents bring -college, money, success – and will let my kids determine what those things are for them. And in the meantime I’m going to do what I can to make them happy – deliriously giddy happy full of joy and wonder – because it’s hard being a kid and they will face more unhappiness than I would ever want, so I can be their happiness source. Long live happiness (well, how I define it). Again, thank you.

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