Home > musing > I don’t want you to be happy

I don’t want you to be happy

August 27, 2013

I was giving unwanted advice to my friend the other day, complaining to him about how he’s this absolutely fantastic, wonderful young person – all true – and he’s wasting his time feeling like he’s wasting his time.

Look, he’s obsessed over time. He’s always complaining about being late, or being too slow, or being rushed, and he never thinks he has time to do anything. He’s too old to embark on something.

He’s on tenure track, so that might be part of the problem, but on the other hand he’s gonna get tenure, even he admits that, so not really.

I was telling him to stop worrying about time and just enjoy being awesome. Here I am, quite a few years older, and I’m not at all rushed when it comes to accomplishment. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and many of my favorite role models are women who change their careers at the age of 75, become potters or writers or poets or what have you. I don’t think I’ll ever need to feel like it’s too late to do something I really want to do. If I’m still alive there’s still time.

“Anyway,” I end my speech, “I’m just saying this because I want you to be happy.”

“Happy?” he says, “please don’t say that. You don’t actually want me to be happy. Come on, you can do better than that.”

And that’s when it hit me. I don’t want him to be happy. I just want him to have better suffering. Instead of suffering about the amount of time he has to do things, which is a self-produced drama, I want him to strive for goals and accomplishments without the noise of crappy I’m-too-late suffering.

I want him to have meaningful suffering, not happiness.

I mean, it depends on what you mean by happiness, but in that conversation he made me realize that wishing happiness on someone is a pretty bland goal. Maybe even an unkind goal.

In fact, it’s the goal I say I wish for my kids when I really hope they’re safe. I’m not so sure “happy” is all that different from “doesn’t get involved in the world too much, stays out of trouble, and is safe”. If you don’t believe me, check out this guy (hat tip Chris Wiggins), whose stated goal is to be happy but whose practice is to ignore all things that interrupt his world view and to make silly lists.

Example from my life. If a friend of mine got his college savings, bought an apartment in Paris, and spent his days combing the catacombs of Paris, I’d want to hang out with that guy. If my son did the same thing, I’d want to convince him not to do it, and to go to college instead. After all, I’d argue, it’s for his own good, he should get an education. I’d tell him I was urging this because I want him to be happy.

Two conclusions.

First, as a parent I’ll strive to spend less time protecting my children from harm and more time letting them seek their own adventures. I want more for them, frankly, than that they’re happy/safe.

Second, I want to start urging my friends to find meaningful suffering. Strive for something and be temporarily miserable when you don’t get it. Hate the world enough to never be satisfied with how shitty things are, love the world enough to stay engaged with it anyway.

Categories: musing
  1. Math
    August 27, 2013 at 7:40 am

    I live in Europe, so I have been hovering around the Mathbabe website during my lunchtime, as usual, looking forward to a new posting. This one was perfect to set me on a good track for the rest of the day! I am also in the tenure track phase of life, and have little children, and so it is pretty easy for me to worry every day about time. But I know that successful math research requires that I follow leads that may take a great deal of time but are more likely to result in immediate failure than immediate success. It is much more inspiring to think about suffering productively and enjoying the struggle (which I do, as long I’m not worried about time). As Samuel Beckett said: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.


    • Thads
      August 27, 2013 at 10:13 pm

      It’s high time for someone to write the Samuel Beckett self-help book. Isn’t he inspirational?
      I suggest “Fail Better” or “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On” or simply “Better Living Through Beckett.”


  2. August 27, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Not all of my lists are silly. Only some of them.


    • August 27, 2013 at 9:48 am

      What is silly, to me, is the idea that just making lists is effective. Maybe sometimes your lists accidentally have meaningful ideas on them. But if that’s what you’re after, why not set aside time to have meaningful ideas? I could dig that.


  3. August 27, 2013 at 10:09 am

    I think you have to reread it. I’m not suggesting making lists that don’t have meaningful ideas. It’s one part of a series of things I am suggesting. But the list part is important to stretch and exercise the idea muscle so that a higher percentage of ideas are meaningful.


  4. August 27, 2013 at 10:11 am

    But…I’m also suggesting that cultivating gratitude, physical health, emotional health, etc are all equally important.

    I’m also not saying it works for everyone, it just works for me. First, be happy, and then I strive for goals. Rather than the other way around. And, I also suggest that one should step outside of their world view as often as possible. That the key to to breaking free of the comfort zone is to not have one.


  5. August 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Parents will do anything for their children, except let them be themselves. Or let them fail. We hate to let them fail, even though that’s the only way they’ll learn anything. Which shows that our parenting styles are mostly about soothing our own anxieties, not what’s actually best for our children.


  6. August 28, 2013 at 2:33 am

    What is meaningful suffering? How can one distinguish it from meaningless suffering?

    Some good advice on life’s meaning from Bill Watterson, illustrated by Gavin Aung Than: http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/27/watterson_advice_large.jpg


  7. Kari
    August 29, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I tell my kids that my job is “not to be your friend, but to teach you to be an independent, productive member of society.” (I say this often enough that they quote it back to me.) My goal, on the other hand, is for them to be happy doing this. Does this translate to “meaningful suffering”? I hope so.


  8. pjm
    August 29, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Happiness is really about sustainable pleasure. Heroin is pleasurable just not very sustainable. Pursuing passions that make the world a better place (or at least don’t hurt anybody else) is sustainable pleasure. Making connections with our loved ones is also (maybe the primary one). And the better part of parenting is just being there, over-managing is not a substitute for being present (on multiple levels).


    • pjm
      August 29, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      and, oh yeah, the obsession about making your mark, professional success that’s ego b.s. It’s not just morally questionable, it interferes with creativity. If doing the work isn’t enough reward, choose another line of work. And also realize that in creative pursuits (i.e., math) some things can’t be rushed and have to work themselves out on their own pace, so balance is necessary.


  1. August 30, 2013 at 10:31 pm
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