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Is Parenthood Linked to Greater Joy and Meaning or Misery? Science Speaks

Being a parent leads to greater joy than misery compared to childless peers.


Excerpt from the unprompted conversation with my kids as I put them down to bed:

Raven (5 years old): Dad, we love you, even if you yell at us. Even if you rip out our eyeballs, we still love you.

Chloe (5 years old): Are you going to die soon?

me: Why do you ask?

Raven: If you die and eat our brains, I'll still love you.


While I have gotten around to teach them about zombies, I still haven't taught them about the notion of unconditional love. But it appears they beat me to it. And yet, if I was to pay attention to the media, you'd think I made the worst decision in my life to have children.

Parents hate parenting

Parents are unhappy

(to quote from this article, "I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents.")

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To go a step further, Children are unhappy because their parents are unhappy


As a cyborg, half scientist/half human, this discussion intrigues me. Any nuanced social relationship that is described in black and white terms should be viewed with skepticism. Talking to other parents, its clear that our brains are hypersensitive to short bursts of parenting annoyances [insert memory of screaming, whining, inconsolable creature], even if its just 10 minutes at the end of a great day. Its easy to forget the surrounding meaningful, joyous moments. Its similar to being asked about your physical health and instead of counting the years that have passed since you were ill, the months since you even coughed, you look down at the bloody cuticle on your finger, pick the skin away until it hurts, and write down "average physical health". Negative moments outweigh the positive moments (bolded and italicized to show solidarity with other parents).


But we are flawed at assessing our own lives. 94% of college professors rate themselves as above average teachers (so much for advanced degrees). Ask husbands and wives how much of the household chores each does, and the result adds up to far beyond 100%. Why do we need science to understand whether parenting is linked to well-being? Why do we need a tiny bit of objectivity? Consider Chip Health's answer, a professor at Stanford University, "it's like trying to scratch an itch in the middle of your back. You can do it, but it's easier for someone else to help you out."


And this brings us to the latest (soon to be published) research by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and  colleagues. Three studies on whether parents experience greater well-being than non-parents. Lets geek out and get into the numbers.

 

1. In a survey of 6,906 people in the United States, parents reported greater life satisfaction, meaning and purpose in life, but not happiness. These three elements of well-being are not the same. And good news if you are like me and believe that government should have better things to do than decide who can get married and who can't. Non-married blokes endorsed the same benefits from being a parent as married blokes.

But perhaps sex matters. You might be surprised to know that if you look deeply into these numbers, dads derive greater satisfaction and happiness as a parent. Or you might be pissed, thinking of course those $#%$ers do, they get the fun parts of parenting. Tossing kids around the room into bean bag chairs; transforming zucchini and squash into bacon batons; teaching them how to tolerate risk, uncertainty, and fear; and being loved and feared at the same time.

And age matters, as it looks like there is some truth to MTV's "16 and pregnant". Want insight into one of the secrets to well-being? Don't get knocked up at 16. Younger parents have less satisfying lives. Maybe, just maybe, a reason why its not such a good idea for Big Brother to put contraceptives under lockdown.

2. But surveys are notoriously untrustworthy. So how about 329 adults who were paged 5 times per day to gain access into a week of their lives? From moment-to-moment during the course of everyday life, parents reported greater happiness, greater meaning in life, more positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms than non-parents. Once again, its particularly good to be a father, as they reported much greater well-being than childless men. Moms, remember this when your husband leaves you alone with the kids so they can play golf all weekend. Perhaps moms can head to spaworld so that the family can get on even well-being footing.

3. But Sonja and her colleagues wanted to show up everybody with yet another study to figure out the best and worst moments of the day for parents. This time they asked 186 parents to reflect on the past 24 hours of their life, breaking down the past day into episodes: what did they do? who were they with? and how much positivity and meaning in life did they experience during these moments? What they found was that on average, compared to moments when their kids were not around, they had more positive emotions and a stronger sense of meaning in life when taking care of their children. And finally (finally!), moms and dads experienced the same gains from being with their kids.

 

Don't get me wrong, parenting is hard and there are moments when it sucks. And there is that itchy feeling that comes every once in awhile about lost selves. Past versions of you, prior to parenthood, when you were responsible for nobody else. When you could stay up all night with friends, dance on car hoods, and wake up naked in a thorn bush with a smile of contentment.

In the end, what's in your life that is so important that you would die for it? what's in your life that is so poignant that your eyes well up from joy? and when you have an amazing moment with your children, don't let it go. Return to it when you're alone, and recall that moment for 10 seconds. For 10 seconds, sit with it, close your eyes, and savor it. Let it sink into your neural circuitry. Because for many of us, these moments are the building blocks of the most meaningful life we will ever get.

 

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees, and health professionals on well-being. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to toddkashdan.com

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your 'Good' Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment more...

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