What A Trip to the ‘Wrong Side of Town’Taught Me About My Dad
People who focus on living with a sense of purpose are more likely to remain healthy and intellectually sound and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of “happiness” via pleasure.
My father was a Detroit riot cop, a huge rock of a man with forearms the size of tree trunks and a demeanor that practically shouted toughness. But what made Dad a great father and role model was his ability to project strength through kindness.
Just one example: When my two brothers were in their teens, they delivered televisions for an appliance store in suburban Detroit. One day they were assigned a delivery in an achingly poor and crime-ridden Detroit neighborhood. After installing the TV, my brothers were walking out of the apartment building when they noticed a familiar form headed toward them, a large man wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It was Dad’s day off, and he looked startled at first – then a bit angry.
“What are you boys doing down here?” Dad said, sternly. “This is a bad neighborhood.” He was carrying two bags of clothes – pants and shirts that we had outgrown.
My brother Tim asked, “What are you doing down here?”
Dad shrugged. “Just seeing some people I know.”
At this point in our lives, we already knew Dad couldn’t pass a stranded driver; he always stopped to help. I once saw him shake hands with a homeless man outside a Red Wings game, discreetly passing a couple of crumpled dollar bills to the guy he called Bill. “Thank you, Ron,” the man said.
My father knew – and he taught us by example – that the key to happiness is kindness. As Marc Gellman wrote in a 2006 essay for Newsweek magazine, “True happiness, the kind of happiness we ought to wish for our children and for ourselves is almost always the result of dong hard but good things over and over.”
People tell researchers that getting married didn’t make them any happier, and neither did having children or making a lot of money. That’s because happiness for most people is defined as pleasure, and most of what makes a marriage or parenthood fulfilling is not very pleasurable. But it is good.
The unbound pursuit of pleasure is harmful. Researchers in the booming field of positive psychology see a direct link between increasing cultural emphasis on materialism and status and the rising rates of depression, paranoia, and psychopathology. People who focus on living with a sense of purpose are more likely to remain healthy and intellectually sound and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of “happiness” via pleasure.
There is nothing wrong with the pleasure that comes with a big meal, a sexy night, or victory on the playing field – but it’s fleeting. Raising kids, working through marriage troubles, and volunteering at a soup kitchen may be less pleasurable, but these pursuits provide fulfillment – a sense that you’re the best person you can be. Researchers call this “hedonic well-being” and link it directly to lower levels of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other maladies.
What do I ultimately want for my kids? I want them to pursue the happiness that is found in goodness, the strength forged in kindness. On a day off, I want them to bring outgrown clothes to a bad neighborhood.
Adapted from “Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ron Fournier is Publisher and editor of Crain’s Detroit Business, formerly the Senior Political Columnist for National Journal. He began his family and career in Arkansas, covering then Governor Bill Clinton before moving to Washington in 1993, where he covered politics and the presidency during the administrations of Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Fournier also served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where he co-wrote the New York Times bestseller Applebee’s America. He holds the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for coverage of the 2000 elections, and he is a four-time winner of the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Association Merriman Smith Memorial Award.