The Long Look Back

Editor's note

A few months ago, several of my friends posted Facebook links to a New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior called “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.” As the mother of two young children who was soon to edit a magazine issue on happiness and humor, I clicked through and read the piece with interest, nodding in agreement at some points, grimacing at others, chortling throughout. Then, in a true mark of approval in this digital age, I posted the link on my Facebook page so that others might read the piece. I included a comment, describing the article as “intriguing and often hilarious,” to which one friend remarked, “Interesting. I'm not getting ‘hilarious' from this, though.”

This friend, who is the father of two daughters under the age of five, had a point. According to the article, most research across the disciplines shows that people with children are less happy than people without children. Not funny stuff—at least, to parents, many of whom, the writer says, believe the findings are wrong. But in the course of figuring out why the data can show one thing but people believe another, the writer collects several funny quotes and observations and gets into intriguing humanities territory: what is the nature of happiness?

As I thought about this friend's comment, it occurred to me that happiness and humor often have nothing to do with one another. Happiness is sincere and earnest, heartfelt and even a little purple, but not usually funny. Something funny can make you feel happy, true, but humor often stems from sad or upsetting or even grim experiences. What makes something funny is that it's widely relatable, an experience or observation that's universal. We laugh because we've been there, we've thought the same thing, we commiserate, we understand. I suppose I found humor in this article because so much of it rang true. I knew that the parents interviewed had their own stories of exasperating encounters with irrational, emotional children up sick in the middle of the night when an important meeting looms, bright and early, the next morning. These are funny, but not happy stories.

Late in the article, Senior makes a distinction between different kinds of happiness: moment-to-moment versus retrospective. “Is happiness something you experience?” asks Senior. “Or is it something you think?” The daily grind of childrearing might not be the moment-to-moment variety, hence, the findings that parents are unhappy make sense. Happiness instead might be found in the long look back, through, as Senior puts it, “the gilding of hard times.” She refers to the classic Greek definition of happiness as leading a productive, purposeful life, writing, “And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn't by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.”

In this sense, then, humor and happiness work in tandem: chuckles and guffaws get us through the day, but joy and bliss help us take stock when we look back and reflect before moving forward again, into the storm.

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Also in this Issue

The Long Look Back

Pursuing the Science of Happiness

Love Thy Neighbor (Sometimes)

A Nation of Can-Do Optimists

How Courtenay Got Her Funny Back

Laughing Into the Abyss

Funny Is All I Got