Fulfillment: Way better than mere happiness

Lately I’m seeing lots of studies — or, more accurately, articles about studies — claiming that non-parents are happier than parents. The accompanying commentary essentially concludes that everybody since the beginning of time has had it wrong, that procreation and parenting are really just long roads to misery, and that young people should think twice about their plans for love, marriage and a baby carriage.

Alarmingly, I’m seeing interviews with young adults who are taking this nonsense seriously and deciding to forego having children at all in the interest of “pursuing happiness.”

And worse still are the increasingly regular reports I hear of actual parents who are deciding that this parenting thing is a drag on their social lives and are exiting family life in order to get their “happy” on. I’m not talking about people in bad or abusive or dangerous marriages who make the difficult decision to leave for truly substantive reasons. I’m talking about mothers and/or fathers who simply decide that the garden variety problems and commitments inherent in marriage and parenting are making them less “happy,” so they are exiting stage right on the assumption that a life of freedom “out there” will be more fulfilling.

This, my people, is messed up.

I get where, in the short run, the life of the childless might be easier at times. If you are up all night with a sick kid, and I am able to sleep, I am probably “happier” the next day. You, as a parent have a lot more to worry about. And worry, of course, eats into “happiness” in whatever moments are stolen by the worrying.

But there is a fundamental mistake here. These people are confusing happiness with fulfillment.

Happiness is pleasure. It is an emotion. The dictionary defines it as a “mental or emotional state.” It is fleeting, transitory, elusive. It happens in the moment. Sure, I’m happy when I get a good night’s sleep. But a couple of days later, it doesn’t really matter. Neither does the fun I had, or the money I spent, or anything else that might buy me short-term happiness. “Happiness” as a state is impossible to sustain. As soon as things get difficult, my happiness is gone. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are meant to have happy moments, and unhappy moments.

Fulfillment is different. It is deeper, more constant. It can exist underneath a full range of emotional experiences. It is possible to be unhappy in a moment and yet fulfilled on a deeper level.

I have quoted it before, and I’ll quote it a million times again. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says that “Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself.”

We find real meaning, real fulfillment, in self-gift. In love. And that often comes in the form of sacrificing our own current “happiness” for the sake of someone else. Like losing sleep with a sick kid.  Like spending money on tuition instead of a new car.

The problem with the “pursuit of happiness” as our sole goal in life is that it detracts us from our real purpose — and hence, ironically, from real long-term happiness or fulfillment.

It is my belief that parenting — aside from bringing many, many happy moments — brings fulfillment. And, that like many other fulfilling things, it is not easy. It is not always “happy.” And that those who forego it out of a misguided desire for “happiness” are making a lifelong mistake.

I say all of this as a non-parent. I’m getting all of the “fun” that you all think you’re missing out on. And, let me tell you, “fun” doesn’t offer the love, the satisfaction, the deep-down fulfillment that is found in the joys and sacrifices of parenting.

That is not to say that the life of a non-parent isn’t or can’t be fulfilling. But our fulfillment isn’t necessarily built-in. Sometimes obligations to serve come to us. But other times we have to go looking for them — for opportunities to make a difference, to give ourselves, to matter.  When that happens, we become “spiritual” fathers or mothers — using our masculine or feminine gifts to make a difference in the lives those who are not our actual children.

Twenty years ago, I gave the graduation address at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The theme of that talk was “Living Life from the Deathbed Backwards.” When you are on your deathbed, what will you want your life to have looked like? Will you be glad you had a lot of fun at a lot of nightclubs? Will you be satisfied that you are leaving behind a bunch of nice possessions for your relatives to fight over? Or do you want to look back on the ways the you made a difference — the lives that are here or are better because you existed?

That is the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

And, trust me, fulfillment is way better.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.