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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

On Serendipity and Joy

A lifetime ago, I was not a parent. I schemed and planned. I built intricate machinations in the hope of capturing joy and bringing happiness into my life. In May, this changed. My life is faced with a whirlwind of joy, fear, anxiety, and hope. A multipolar tornado of misery and riches that separates me from understanding the puny hopes and wishes I had when I was not yet a dad.


I have come to realize that joy is not to be engineered. Joy, as anything that matters in life, is to be experienced. It comes to the person who waits for it with open arms. But as Michael Ende dismally explains in Momo, our adult lives are engineered to minimize the chances of joy.

We spend our time bathing in the lights emitted by diodes hidden behind black mirrors filled with dread. We busy ourselves in the pursuit of KPI that, when reached, make us feel more like Sysiphus seeing his boulder fall downhill than the joy and success we might have expected..

Goals of a Previous Self

I lived a life ruled by a tiny dictator. Throughout my life, I reached decisions based upon the heuristic: "Would my 8-year-old self be proud of this?" Faced with any significant challenge, I chose based on what my internal critic would find most impressive. This metric has worked well. I have studied and done research in more fields than most people. In the past year, a coauthor of mine won a Nobel prize (not for my work with him naturally), I was almost to teach a future queen, and I had research accepted for publication in a top journal in my field. These are impressive things. My younger self is super impressed by them. But I am mostly indifferent.

Hot Stove

I think more of my failures than my triumphs. I feel worse about my being fired from a PhD in physics than I feel good about switching fields and becoming the first person in my cohort of physics doctoral students to get a faculty position. As Jerker Denrell showed, the bad outweighs the good.

This is a problem. I am ruled by a dictator. I break my back to make him happy, but when I reach my goals, I am met with indifference and contempt. He shows the people who reached the same goals earlier and in shorter times. Present alternative lives in which I would have been faster or more successful. He keeps me small and weak.


But not always. My tiny dictator is unable to theorize what a family looks like. The joys and tribulations of becoming a dad. Nor the uncertainty and luck that comes as your daughter comes to life. He is blindsided, and in his lack of foresight, vast portions of joy meet me and keep me in awe.

Serendiphitysty, I feel it is the lack of plans, the lack of clear goals, and the lack of any metric surrounding my daughter that keeps me happy. She might say a syllable for the first time or pinch my face, and I will feel better than when a valuable R&R comes to my desk. My daughter is superb at being human. She is full of joy and wonder, curiosity and grit. She elevates me and helps me feel with her the wonder of being alive.

Joy's Cross Section

Deepak Chopra says that the purpose of life is to maximize one's experience of joy. Do with that as you wish. But if that were the purpose, my life so far has been ill-designed. I have made myself impervious to joy, working for years to receive some measure of success. Worst still, some success I feel just contempt for.

Parenthood changed this. I knew I would experience joy. I did not expect the randomness behind it, how every day is uniformly filled with exhaustion, anxiety, and joy. There is no structure, no promise, just chance. But in this randomness, there is more satisfaction than in the decade prior of my life.

What I find interesting, though, is that I structured this serendipity of joy. I chose to take a long parental leave. To spend all afternoons with my daughter. To increase the chances of experiencing joy per unit of time, the cross-sectional joy. Had I worked in the US or taken the standard two-month off men take in Germany, I would have missed many joy showers. I would see her at lunchtime or at night and forego a brilliant time.


I am grateful for the chance to experience the joy surrounding my daughter. But I can shake the knowledge that most often, the people who experience this privilege (i.e., parental leave) tend to be penalized heavily for their time away from the office. Motherhood penalties steal a third of mothers' pensions by the time they retire just because they stayed home with their children and experienced the joy of being with them.

It keeps me feeling as Momo did, seeing how everyone around them started to focus in investing their time in the TImesaving Bank, and all society became ruled by these Grey Gentlemen that sucked all joy out of life. Chopra might be wrong about the purpose of life but, however wrong I cannot imagine any purpose to life too uncorrelated to the maximization of joy.

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