Studies have long shown that parents tend to be unhappier than their childless counterparts: seven percent unhappier, on average. Scientifically speaking, we have a pretty good understanding of the things that predict happiness. Motherhood is not one of them; this Mother’s Day I’d like to end the misery.
Since my book Raising Happiness was published, I've met so many unhappy mothers. "How did I get here?", they ask me, joy drained from their faces.
You got there—we all get there—by being too damn busy. Ask a mother how she is, and 99.9% of the time she’ll answer: I am so busy. “We say this to one another with no small degree of pride,” writes Wayne Muller in his treatise on rest, “as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.”
Busyness does not make us happy. Muller reminds us that the Chinese symbol for busy is composed of two characters: heart and killing.
This trouble with the busy-ness of motherhood is that most of the work is instrumental. And the trouble with instrumental work is best illuminated by a famous study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow. Csikszentmihalyi unintentionally induced what looked like text-book cases of generalized anxiety disorder in his subjects simply by instructing his subjects as follows: from the time you wake up until 9:00 PM, "we would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is 'play' or 'non-instrumental.'"
Research subjects could make the beds and wash the dishes, drive carpool, go to work, come home and make dinner, supervise homework and bedtime—any of this sounding familiar?—skipping those moments of enjoyment in the day that bring flow or rest. They avoided those things at work they'd do just for fun, skipped the lovely breather they'd take when the kids are off to school, refrained from juicy-but-not-productive sex when the sun went down.
Following these instructions for just 48 hours produced symptoms of serious anxiety—restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension—by eliminating flow and play from their lives. In other words, we get anxious when we aren't having fun.
Dan Pink, in his must-read book Drive, writes about what happened to these particular research subjects:
The results were almost immediate. Even at the end of the first day, participants "noticed an increased sluggishness about their behavior." They began complaining of headaches. Most reported difficulty concentrating, with "thoughts [that] wander round in circles without getting anywhere." Some felt sleepy, while others were too agitated to sleep
. As Csikszentmihalyi wrote, "After just two days of deprivation...the general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been unadvisable."
When we strip motherhood of play and flow—as we so often do, just to get everything done—our mood deteriorates. It isn't just worry about our children and endless housework that make us anxious and unhappy; it's that we aren't actually having fun anymore. Fun, rest, relaxation, flow have been squeezed out of our lives in the pursuit of more. More sports for our kids, more homework, more driving to activities, more work so we can earn more money so we can buy more stuff. We are poisoned by the hypnotic belief, writes Muller, that "good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort," and so "we can never truly rest."
Take the Happiness Challenge and Win a copy of Raising Happiness!
This year on Mother's Day, I hope we all get to truly rest. I challenge us all to systematically add fun back into our lives. This may mean that we are less productive. I may never get to the bottom of my email box. I may never really figure out how to use twitter. I might not be able to blog more, do more radio shows, or give more talks. I worry that if I don't continue to work myself to the bone that I won't earn enough money to give my kids the education I want to give them.
But of course, this is faulty logic. Work without rest, which ignores the regular cycle of life, the yin and yang of inhaling and exhaling—does not make us more productive. In fact, in nature, we find that when we let plants or land or hibernating animals rest they are dramatically more productive.
This year for Mother's Day, I challenge you to become happier. To start:
- Identify those times during the day when you feel flow. When do you feel most at play, most happy? Schedule those things into your life the way you would schedule important meetings or doctor's appointments. Your happiness is important, and it will make you a better parent.
- Identify the things that are making you feel crazy-busy, and find a way to change those parts of the day or week. Other people might need to make some sacrifices for your sanity: small people with too many activities, for example. Break bad habits that drain your energy. For example, I feel happier during dinnertime now that I don't have to constantly nag my children to stay seated. And if you can get someone to do a boring but necessary task for you, for god's sake, don't complain about the way they do.
- Talk to your coworkers and children's other parent. Tell them what you won't be doing, in order that you might have a chance to breathe. Consider that you might be inspiring, rather than disappointing them.
Now here is a key component of it: Make it public, right here in the comments section. This is a way to make it happen for yourself. And when you do this, you'll be entered into a drawing to win a copy of Raising Happiness. You will also be paying it forward, inspiring others to make themselves happier. What instrumental tasks can you get help with? What are you committing to do to add fun and REST back into your life?
I’m meaning to start a social movement here, people. I’m tired, and I know I’m not alone. Parenthood can be one of the most fulfilling and joyful things that we do. Science is giving us lots of clues about the things that make life happier: play, flow, mindfulness, friends, gratitude. But it is up to us to pursue those paths that will, in fact, make us happier.
Perhaps then the next time someone asks me how we are, we won't be compelled to say, "busy."
Note about the book contest: if you’d like to enter, please email a copy of your comment to me at Christine@raisinghappiness.com. That way I can get in touch with you if you win!
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Half Full. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.
Muller, Wayne. (1999). Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives.
Pink, Daniel. (2009). Drive.
Gilbert, Daniel. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1991). Flow.