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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.

Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love and relationships across the United States and internationally for . . .well . . . her entire adult life. She was among the first Catholic speakers to introduce audiences to St. John Paul II’s beautiful Theology of the Body. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting respect for God’s gift of human sexuality. Her book Real Love, based on the Theology of the Body, has been translated into ten languages. She is also the author of We’re on a Mission from God, writes a monthly column for Catholic newspapers and contributes regularly to the Catholic Match Institute blog.
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