Inchoate thoughts on happiness

A few days ago, I heard Terry Gross interview Harvard psychologist and author Richard Weissbourd about his new book The Parents We Mean to Be. While he wasn't a particularly engaging interviewee, the book itself sounds interesting, and I plan to pick it up soon. From the excerpt on NPR's website:
This book reveals this largely hidden psychological landscape— the unexamined ways that parents, teachers, sports coaches, and other mentors truly shape moral and emotional development. It explores, for example, the subtle ways that adults can put their own happiness first or put their children's happiness above all else, imperiling both children's ability to care about others and, ironically, their happiness.


As a quite direct sixteen-year-old said to me: "I'm taking this class where they're trying to help us figure out how to determine what's right from wrong. But the kids at my school all know right from wrong. That's not the problem. The problem is that some kids just don't give a shit."
Just so. I'm obviously experienced with working with children in a particular way, and have some observations about them and how they are raised. However, I am not a parent (yet) and don't really know what it's like to live with and guide a child from within that experience. With that disclaimer stated, I think a huge failing in contemporary parenting is the notion that one's primary purpose is to promote the happiness of one's child. If a child has been taught that the most important thing is his or her own happiness, then why should he or she compromise it in favor of the "right" thing to do? It's all very well to tell kids to do the right thing, but if that hasn't been reinforced through a pattern to living, then all the talking in the world will make no difference.

Which brings me to my follow-up point. I don't think the problem is limited to children and parenting. I think it's an insidious part of American culture, this obsession with personal happiness. In a recent blog post about the basis for current "civil religion," Damon Linker quotes the following tenets:

1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."

2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."

3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."

5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

In all fairness, Linker thinks the theology described is "pretty repulsive." However, he thinks an anodyne civil religion based on these principles is preferable to "the 'mere orthodoxy' of the evangelical-Catholic alliance [that] has proven unsuitable for a pluralistic nation of 300 million people." I am loath to defend evangelical orthodoxy, but neither am I hip to endorse a doctrine of self-centered "feel-goodism" as an alternative, even as a purely political construct. We can debate the other points, but tenet #3 has got to go.

Trouble is, I think this mindset is already widespread. It's evident in our culture, and probably even underlies our current financial woes. Prudence and forbearance sometimes conflict with one's desire to buy whatever the hell one wants, and at the risk of sounding like Bill Bennett there's something to be said about doing the right thing even it it's in conflict with one's short-term happiness.

1 comment:

  1. How do you know the right thing to do? Seriously, how do you know the right thing to do? We have some compelling arguments that much of what humans call the right thing to do is a farrago of instincts developed during our evolutionary history. So how do we make tradeoffs between our pleasures, instincts, and reasoning, given that all of these have serious limitations? I think it is a very hard problem.