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Happiness and Goodness: Which Do I Want More For My Child?

Which is more important for my child: his happiness or his goodness? 

Or in other words, which do I want more for my child? 

For some reason, this question has come to my attention several times in recent months. While I didn’t encounter it  in this exact form, this idea that either happiness or goodness must take precedence in our childrearing, and in our child’s heart, is one that keeps coming up. And as it really is an important question, I offer it to you to consider along with me. 

Before we continue, I encourage us to take at least a few moments to consider what this question is actually asking. Perhaps it’s not as easy to answer as it initially appears. 

* * * 

After such thinking, I am curious: are these two things antagonistic to each other? Maybe; I suppose it would depend on the context of how and where we find happiness and if one’s goodness is compromised by one’s pursuit of happiness

Perhaps it would be helpful to define both of these terms. Our middle school students learn in their Logic class how important definitions can be.

Goodness seems a bit more solid, as if yielding more naturally to one’s understanding. This particularly could be the case if it has a solid foundation on which to stand. Here’s one such definition I present for our consideration:  

Goodness is the confirmation, the matching-up, of one’s life with God’s character and life and His purpose for us and the rest of His creation. It is living out one’s life in a way that matches with that reality, of recognizing the importance of one’s relationships and choices in this life, and seeking to be ‘like God,’ particularly through living as much as His grace allows like His Son, Jesus Christ. 

Even if one wanted to define the basis of goodness outside God’s nature, goodness yet has an absolute basis.  We seem to be made to have a good/bad meter, being able to pick out the different shades of goodness in ourselves or others (especially in others). This indicates some higher or more authoritative standard that determines the goodness of a person, an action, an idea, a belief. 

Happiness, well, that seems a bit more challenging. Possible synonyms might include joy, peace, contentment, maybe even satiety. I think that we can all agree that those are not exact synonyms.

Anyway, it is good practice to define terms by synonyms (we learn that in middle school as well!). Let’s at least agree that happiness means something different than these and any other terms. 

Probably the best distinction that I’ve come across in past years is that happiness is more about temporary pleasure or satisfaction from feelings or an experience that was pleasurable or that worked out ‘my way.’ In opposition, joy goes deeper and is a more resilient virtue, having staying power even when the going gets tough. For an analogy, joy is well on completing the work of the day by the time that sleepyhead happiness stirs in its bed. Joy can persist in the midst of much adversity and pain as it is seemingly not dependent on pleasure or ‘good feelings’ unlike happiness which is much more concerned with reactions vs. growing in one’s relationship with a good reality. 

Now that we’ve made a start at defining our terms--always an important step in a worthwhile conversation!--let’s get back to that initial question--which is more important in a child’s life, happiness or goodness?  

I believe that it is safe to say most of our contemporaries would answer in favor of happiness. And why not, right? Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want their child to be happy? But let us consider what the likely source of such happiness is. Does happiness have to be based on one’s innate goodness? Of course not! Our own lives prove that we can be incredibly happy while piggishly selfish. In their own immature way, children prove this every day. 

So, there’s no necessary connection between one’s happiness cultivating one’s goodness. And this really should be the case if happiness is more important than goodness, particularly if we likewise believe that a child’s goodness is important. 

In short, can a child be happy without being good? Absolutely! Does that matter? Undoubtedly. 

It just so happens that many wise people have been writing about this for many, many generations. As an aside, one of the most important things that many of us will likely do in our lifetimes is to keep alive and current for our children and hopefully our grandchildren the wisdom and experience of the past. In a world that seems to glory in discarding last year’s fashions, much less the experience of the last three+ millennia, this is a critical opportunity to take advantage of.

So, what have our forebears, particularly our Christian forebears, said about this? 

Our own Charlotte Mason wrote these words about this matter in her second volume of education philosophy with parents as her special audience [bolding mine]:

“Our conception of a child rules our relations towards him. For amusement is the rule of child-life proper...and most of our children’s books and many of our theories of child-education are based upon this rule. ‘Oh! He’s so happy,’ we say, and are content, 

      believing that if he is happy he will be good

and it is so to a great extent; but in the older days, the theory was,

  if you are good you will be happy

and this is a principle which strikes the keynote of endeavor, and holds good, not only through the childish ‘stage of evolution,’ but for the whole of life, here and hereafter. The child who has learned to ‘endeavor himself’ (as the Prayer Book has it) has learned to live(Parents and Children, chapter 23, p. 253). 

Charlotte makes a fine distinction here on the proper ordering of these two ideas. Where we put the emphasis really does make a big difference. If our happiness depends on our desire to ‘be good,’ to treat other people and even animals with respect and consideration, to be aware of our relationship with our Living God, then we have the opportunity to be happy, or perhaps even joyful.

The reverse does not typically hold true. A person can choose to be happy and selfish; he cannot be those things and also good.  One can derive satisfaction from putting others down, bearing a grudge, being envious, all of the oldest of sins in the newest of ways. Certainly, there is no necessary reason why happiness must lead to such evil. However, there is nothing innate in a priority toward happiness that will prevent that from happening. Simply put, happiness in itself is no motivator for goodness, particularly if that goodness threatens the loss of happiness. 

Contrast that with this situation. What if a child understands, increasingly with each year, that they will be happy to the extent that his or her character is growing? What if our sons and daughters are cultivated to understand that our true happiness is not fulfilled in a moment’s selfish desire but in the long-term cultivation of disciplines such as perseverance, consistency, and conscientiousness? What if they are educated to want to be good above being happy--even clever and popular? What if? 

If you had the opportunity to read Dr. Sax’s Collapse of Parenting with our staff and parents three years ago, you might remember that that last virtue, conscientiousness, is apparently at the heart of what his research found is critical to an adult’s long term ‘happiness’ (see chapter 6, “What Matters?”). Also, check out the brief summation of his whole book in his compelling and provocative article, “I Just Want Her to Be Happy.”

In his classic apologetic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives the following insights about the growth of goodness and how little, at least initially, it may have to do with one’s personal happiness or desire. 

It would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings... The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you "love" your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less...

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Goodness practiced eventually becomes character. Character becomes how we define ourselves through our relationships with ourselves, others, and God. In the long-game, it even becomes our destiny as we either accept or refuse God’s grace with each step that we or our children take. And all of this happens in spite of being happy or unhappy. Those sensations or feelings are substantially unimportant in this critical work of building one’s character through chasing after goodness, particular its Creator. 

As such, we find many reminders throughout Scripture on the necessity of pursuing goodness through rightly-ordered desires and relationships, particularly one’s connection with the Living God (and conversely, absolutely nothing about seeking happiness!). 

Consider a sampling of this wisdom, as true in the 21st century as it was in any other century: 

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,

    and the one who gets understanding,

for the gain from her is better than gain from silver

    and her profit better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

    and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

    in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

    those who hold her fast are called blessed.   Proverbs 3:13-18 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?    Matthew 16:24-26 

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  Romans 5:3-5

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.   Galatians 5:22-24

All of these passages demonstrate that above all, seeking to develop virtues such as goodness, accompanied by God’s grace and our repeated choices, is the only lasting foundation for joy and even fleeting happiness. We are reminded of this great opportunity and responsibility that we as parents and teachers have in helping the next generation understand much better than we did at their age (and perhaps are still working on). 

In closing, I’ll share one final resource for helping establish a child in a life chasing after goodness rather than happiness. Our friends at CiRCE (Center for Independent Research in Classical Education) recently posted a brief but insightful piece by one of their wonderful writers, educator Joshua Gibbs. Entitled “My Son Would Be Happier at a Different School,” his piece imagines a conversation between him and one of his student’s parents on the pros/cons of staying the course at his particular school or jumping ship to go to a school that the child wants. 

I will warn you: Gibbs pulls no punches in speaking the truth of the matter as he sees it. However, I believe that any parent will benefit from such bold but gracious writing when considering long-term goals for their children, whether at RMCA or any other educational institution. Here’s a sneak peek at the imagined conversation: 

Gibbs: What’s the point in making Oliver happier?

Parent: Isn’t happiness the point of happiness?

Gibbs: Only if happiness is self-justifying, in which case anything that makes you happy is necessarily good.  

Parent: Don’t you think it’s important for a teenager to be happy?

Gibbs: There are many things it is far more important to be...

Ultimately, happiness (particularly if we redefine true happiness as joy) shouldn’t be antagonistic of one’s goodness. Happiness and goodness actually make natural companions! But let’s keep our priorities--only one of those friends prepares the way for the other. Let’s keep in mind that our main task as educators, parents and teachers, is not to keep our children and students happy but to

train them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4), so that, 

when he is old, he does not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).

Serving together, 

Mr. Byrd