What Parenting and Running Have in Common: or why joy is more essential than happiness

In the fascinating and perceptive All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior takes a look at the cultural expectations surrounding parenthood, adulthood, and childhood. The book is fashioned out of a lovely mix of psychology, philosophy, sociology and real-world reporting, and while the drama of parenting is her ostensible subject, she uses this drama to explore even more fundamental questions. The book is not a manual for parenting; it's a book about the way we frame our lives and the narratives that support the answers we give to the hows and whys that face us down as parents and even as human beings.

The most interesting claim that she makes in the book is that the pursuit of happiness at the center of contemporary culture, enshrined in the Constitution, and a central guiding concept in parenting--we want our kids, more than anything, to be happy--is deeply problematic and a threat to other, more important, more achievable, and more satisfying human goals.

She explains that one of the first lessons of parenthood is that happiness is superficial, vague, and ill-defined. Study after study shows that becoming a parent does not lead to happiness. The people she interviews in the book make this case in all sorts of poignant ways. It's also clear that trying to make their children happy leads parents more often than not into paradoxes and difficulties and failures. Anyone who has tried to make someone else happy understands what a frustrating experience that can be. In fact, when we take happiness as a goal for ourselves, we end up making our selves miserable, more often than not.

Senior explains that contemporary culture misunderstands the nature of happiness when we take it as a goal. She allies herself with the Ancient Greeks, who saw happiness as an effect of a well-lived life, as a consequence of flourishing, rather than as an end to be pursued (Aristotle said famously that we could not know whether a man was happy until after his death.) She notes that the most powerful thing that children give us is a sense of this Greek ideal: a well lived life, formed out of duty and purpose. This duty and purpose structures the experience of living in a way that satisfaction is possible, not in an absolute sense, but in a series of concrete senses. Further, parenting gives us structured life in a way that connects us with other people, our children, our partner, our schools, other parents, community. So, the satisfactions that we get from fulfilling our duties as parents are shared satisfactions.

Senior sees parenting as one of the only human activities in the 21st century that allows us to combat a contemporary narrative that says that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness, painted as an internal and psychologically complete state. On the contrary, it paints a picture of life as a matter of family and communal flourishing and downplays the idea that life is about the maximizing of a solipsistic view of individual happiness. It refigures the purpose of life in terms of external attachments and duties, which can be actually measured and achieved in concert with others.

Runners ought to understand Senior's argument intuitively. She helps us articulate why an activity which from the outside (and even from the inside) involves a great deal of suffering, discipline, and is fundamentally painful and tiring (yes, running and parenting have a lot in common) is something that runners continue to do and even identify with. Runners and parents have a lot in common -- those who do not engage in these activities find them fundamentally annoying, don't get what the big deal is, and see parents/runners as masochistic and self-sacrificing.

Runners and parents also do a poor job of explaining why it is that they identify with these activities. We too often pride ourselves on our pain tolerance or paint what we do as self-sacrificing or more noble than other activities. This is why others find us annoying.

Running, parenting -- these things don't make us happier or more virtuous in themselves. They are not a direct path to self-improvement. But, they are activities that frame human activity in terms of duty and allow us to share those duties, with ourselves, with our peers, with our families. I think this is why we do not say that we do running or that we do parenting. Instead, we are runners; we are parents.

We are these things because they provide the duties and framework that allows us to see ourselves as connected, as attached, as beings with purposes and goals and the means to attain those goals or to fail at them. These rich activities (playing music, being married, deep friendship, working a career, being a neighbor) give us the very threads out of which we weave the patterns of our lives. In comparison to this quilt of real and shared responsibilities, happiness is a pale shadow, a mere consequence, a fleeting state.

Senior reminds us that what we want out of life is something more akin to joy than happiness. Joy erupts and fades; it is a feeling of flow, a sense that the structures of the universe -- or at least of our local environment -- are in line with our own being, a sense that we are magnified and larger than ourselves, connected in dynamic ways with experience, with others. Senior quotes GE Vaillant, saying that "Joy is grief turned inside out." Joy is the presence of what we grieve for when it is absent.

If happiness is too pale, inward, and controlled to be a life goal, joy is too vivid, outward, and wild. But articulating the value of life in terms of the one over the other says a lot about the types of experiences we frame for ourselves. The pursuit of happiness frames life as an inward mission towards a state of final internal satisfaction. Happiness is something we pursue and possess. The pursuit of joy frames life as a series of risks taken on behalf of hard-won, often lost, and mutual goals. Joy is never a possession: it's a celebration.

The runner, the parent, the human is never fully satisfied, but often experiences satisfaction. When we celebrate that satisfaction, for ourselves, with others, jubilantly -- when we grieve the loss of hard-fought battles -- we hardly notice ourselves, but for that very reason we are very much alive.


  1. I generally avoid most "parenting" books, but I want to read Senior's. You articulated very well here the reason for something that baffles several friends I have who have chosen not to have kids: why I can complain about the daily details of dealing with my kids and still believe that having them was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. I won't bore you with a list of the many ways I've improved as a person because of them. And this applies to running too (though I don't complain about running as much as I do my kids--maybe that reveals which of the two activities is harder :^) ).

    1. Hey Terzah -- I was hoping you'd comment on this post. Yeah, parenting manuals are the worst! Senior doesn't tell you what to do or really even solve any problems, but she gives good resources for reframing the work parents are doing and helped me understand myself better.

      Anyways, I'd recommend it! I'm a pretty new parent -- it's pretty much the only book I've read on the subject, so don't consider me an expert.

      (One other cool thing though is that like any good scholar she does point to a lot of other interesting books on these issues.)

    2. So which (so far) do you think is more difficult: running or parenting? I think the rewards in parenting come even more slowly than in running (which is infamous for requiring patience)--but perhaps, in the end, they are even greater. With two seven-year-olds, I'm sort of still starting out myself.

    3. Parenting, in the first 4-5 years is much harder. Don't know about the teen years yet. The middle years are fun and easy.

    4. Yeah, I'd probably agree that parenting is more taxing -- though I guess it depends on how seriously you take everything. One thing is certain: running is definitely harder when you are a parent!

    5. Brett, that's my opinion too--I'm a little worried about the teen stuff. And Jeff, YES, on running being harder when you're a parent. I've pretty much given up all the other "optional" things I do (like, oh, hanging out with non-running friends).

  2. Great post. I do believe that joy is far better notion then happiness. As you pointed out. If we will constantly seek happiness, we will end up miserable

  3. This is a really fantastic post, and you definitely did a better job of positively portraying Senior's book than she did in an NPR podcast I heard of her. The connection between parenting and running is just perfect; as a mom of a toddler (2.5 y/o) daughter, I found myself shaking my head in agreement for the entirety of this post. I've been a runner longer than I've been a mother, but the experiences really are pretty similar. Really awesome work. Nail on the head.

    1. Thanks, Erin. I heard an interview of her by Terry Gross that I found to be really frustrating, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. That feeling of frustration is what made me buy the book -- it turned out to be much better than the interview.

  4. When we hardly notice ourselves is indeed the only time we can experience joy. C.S. Lewis pointed out that we can either experience joy or think about our experience of it but not do both at the same time for the moment we begin to think about our feeling joyful it becomes a thing studied rather than a thing experienced. It instantly evaporates. I think Senior's thesis as you've described it is fundamentally sound along those same lines. If happiness is defined as some inward state, then it really is unachievable. Joy is the experience of fully savoring "other" and it does not simultaneously admit thoughts of self.

  5. Runners seem to be a happier lot than the general public. I don't think this is because running makes us happy but the other way around. Same goes for parents. But, wow, both can be really, really hard.

  6. Running is a creative choice. When I'm consciously creating, I never think about happiness or meaning or time. When running a hard race, I might think about time, but I don't think about meaning or happiness. So, I have a hunch that all these things are just ideas circulating in one's head. Because if they don't exist when I'm not thinking about them, then they're just in the land of thought. Good one, Jeff.


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