Did you know that there is actually a whole battalion of researchers studying intensely the question of whether becoming parents makes people happy or miserable?!
Many of these said researchers actually believe that we parents are a sorry lot! They argue that while having kids is good for the human species in general, at individual levels, having children makes most people miserable. And they have collected an exhaustive amount of data from surveying actual parents to support this claim!
A few other researchers on the other hand, counter this argument by showing that while having kids does place a lot of demands on parents, parents derive deep and immense level of joy from parenthood.
So, which claim is true?
Honestly, I don’t care.
What I’m interested in is finding out why some parents are happier, and how you and I can guarantee that we will be among those parents who report being filled with joy and not misery!
So, I dug into the research a little more and this paper in particular — a detailed meta analysis of literature referencing over 270 papers! — was very helpful.
It seems to me that there are two key factors that separate the “happy” parents from the “miserable” ones. By intentionally adopting these factors into our lives, we have a much better chance to be on the happy-to-be-parents side of the fence.
OK, here we go –
#1 Happy Parents Focus on What Having Kids Means to Them Rather than the Day-to-Day Highs and Lows
In his popular TED talk, Martin Seligman — the leading psychologist who is called the father of positive psychology — shows that you can live a happy life through one (or all) of these 3 paths –
- the pleasant life, where the goal is to maximize pleasure or positive feelings
- the good life, where the goal is to reach a “flow” state of active engagement, where you enjoy what you do so much that you lose track of time and become one with it, and
- the meaningful life, where you use your strengths in the service of others and strive to make your life useful for something much larger than yourself.
Most of us regular folks focus on the pursuit of a pleasant life, associating happiness with positive feelings and emotions, as portrayed by pop culture and hollywood movies. Sadly though, Seligman’s research has shown that the pursuit of pleasures has the least chance of leading to overall life satisfaction.
Think of it from the parenting perspective. As a parent, if you focus on just the pleasure, or positive feelings, you are headed straight to a life filled with disappointment and misery. As most of you know, at any given moment, chances are your kids are throwing more challenges your way than sappy, happy feelings.
Instead of getting stuck in this quest for maximizing positive feeling at every given moment, if we seek a good/meaningful life filled with engagement and purpose, we have a much better chance of being truly happy and fulfilled.
How do we focus on a life of engagement and meaning as parents?
I am sure there are many different ways to do this, but here are some to get started (do share your ideas in the comments below!) –
- Stop thinking of little tasks as chores and devise ways to enjoy them. For instance, instead of thinking of discipline as a hassle, start thinking of your role in your kids lives as that of a privileged guide. When you think of what a unique opportunity you have to shape a life, you will have a completely different perspective on discipline. You can apply this to any aspect of parenting that drives you crazy and find ways to broaden your perspective and deepen your level of engagement.
- Start thinking of how having kids gives your life a sense of purpose and meaning. I used to be an engineer in a previous life and worked on the cutting edge of cellular technology. While it was a thrill to be the part of the team that brought the latest cell phone to the market, when I had I my daughter I realized that it was infinitely more meaningful to bring a human being into this world and focus on raising her right!
- Look at this as a new lease to be simple and creative again. Kids have such an incredible sense of wonder and curiosity! If you can find a way to unscrew your grownup brain and get down to their level, they can lead you down a wonderful rabbit hole filled with new discoveries. This didn’t come easy to me, but once I learnt to slowly let go, I’ve found so much joy in marvelling at a roly-poly bug in the backyard, a beautiful wildflower on the side of a street, using our “magic” fingers to turn traffic lights green, stringing up silly songs and so much more!
- Realize that having children pushes you to grow in many new directions. From the day you had your child you have been pushed outside your comfort zone over and over again. Instead of getting stressed by it, embrace it! Each of these is an opportunity of immense growth that you may not have tried otherwise — from being totally responsible for the life of another being to wanting to become a better person so you can set a better example — becoming a parent helps you become much more than you ever thought possible!
Not only is the happiness obtained from pursuing a life of active engagement, meaning and purpose long lasting, some new research studies in the field of biology and gene-expressions show that it could actually increase your immunity to different diseases. Happiness gained from purely pursuing pleasure on the other hand causes gene-expressions similar to those under stress, resulting in higher susceptibility to certain diseases!
#2 Happy Parents Focus on Ways to Fulfil Their Basic Psychological Needs
There is a theory in psychology called the self-determination theory (SDT) which says that for psychological health and well-being of a human being three basic needs have to be met – autonomy (a sense of control), competence (a sense of effectiveness) and connectedness (a sense of closeness).
Parenthood is one of those classic cases which can either heighten the fulfilment of these basic needs, thereby leading to a higher degree of happiness; or get in the way or fulfilling these needs, thereby leading to a higher degree of misery. Needless to say, happy parents are those who take the first path and have found a way to let their parenthood enhance the ways in which these needs are met.
I believe that by being aware, and deliberately making sure that these needs are met, any parent can at a core psychological level, ensure lasting happiness in our role as parents!
Here are some ways that we can do this –
To increase autonomy, be ruthless about focusing your attention only on what is within your control.
Contrary as it sounds, this actually dramatically increases what you have control over! In his very popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change author Stephen Covey shares the very neat concept of the Circle of Concern vs the Circle of Influence and argues that by focusing only on what we can control, we actually expand things we have influence over. I like how Pete from the blog Mr. Money Moustache illustrated this concept for managing personal finance and would like to do the same here for parenting.
Essentially, at the beginning, our circle of influence is rather small and we can control only a few things, most pertaining only to ourselves. At the same time, our circle of concern is huge and cluttered, leading to a feeling of helplessness/frustration. If we commit to focusing our energy on the things that we can control, we start changing from within. This in turn, changes dramatically the influence we have over others. So, we end up increasing the scope of our circle of influence while at the same time crowding out clutter from our circle of concern.
Consider for example the simple case of our kid’s misbehavior. Most of the time we snap/yell at them to get them to behave right. While this may (or not!) get them to behave as we wish at the moment, it doesn’t do much to ensure that the behavior is not repeated again. Essentially, we don’t have much long-term influence on them. Instead of nagging and yelling at them on the other hand, if we focus on our own attitude and our response, we can actually go from nagging parents to being master motivators, and in the process raise internally motivated kids who want to behave good! Suddenly, we are in a much better position to influence our kids behaviors and even their future!
This is something I have been working on quite intensely for sometime now, and can actually vouch for! If there is just room for one change in your life right now, I would recommend working on this. By focusing on what is currently within your control — essentially, your own attitudes and reactions — you can dramatically change the amount of influence you have over others (not just your kids and family, but the whole world in general!) and how much happier you feel!
To increase competence, never stop trying to be a better parent.
Nobody is born competent. Like everything else in life, the more you practise, the better you get — even at this parenting thing. Like we say around here, “Great parents are made, not born!” Always keep watching, experimenting and learning. Maintain a healthy level of curiosity. Stay open to new ideas. Filter the ones that grab you and try them out. If it doesn’t work, discard them. If it does, perfect them. And be sure to sign-up for our weekly emails for a steady stream of insightful, well-researched ideas delivered directly to your mailbox.
To increase connectedness, be present in your children’s lives.
Don’t overschedule your kids or yourself. Build in intentional pauses where you can just spend some time with each other. Get into the habit of eating at least one meal together where the whole family meets each day (or at least a few times each week).
Plan regular outings and holidays – it does not have to be elaborate or expensive, just any chance to get away from the everyday busyness will work. Try to do everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, gardening, groceries etc. together and find ways to make it fun.
Slow down every once in a while to have real, in-depth conversations. Play board games or silly dinner table games. Kiss your kids goodnight, each night. Have special dates with each of your kids individually.
If you are not used to doing some of these, at first it may feel awkward. But if you keep at it, you will soon find out that your kids actually seek out these moments. And these are the times where deep bonds are formed that make having kids so worth it!
At the end of the day, forget about science and research. Just think of it from the plain old common sense perspective. If kids give your life meaning and purpose, if you are heavily engaged with each other, if parenting gives you a better sense of autonomy and competence, if you feel so close to your kids that you cannot imagine a life without them — wouldn’t you be happy beyond a shadow of doubt about parenthood?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our 2-minute exercise to drive these home, let’s answer these questions –
- What does having kids mean to you? How do they enhance your life?
- What is the one thing about parenting that you really hate? What can you do to make it more enjoyable?
- What one thing in your Circle of Influence can you start working on right now to eventually increase your autonomy?
- How do you make sure you are not repeating the same old mistakes each day and that your competence keeps increasing?
- When your kids get in trouble, would they run to you or away from you? How can you be better connected to them?
Give these questions, and others along these lines, a little thought. Whether we feel happy, or miserable is entirely in our hands. Answering just a few questions honestly can help us see which side of the fence we are on, and where we need to go next.
And as always, do share your answers in the comments below.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Throughout this week pay attention to any moments when you might feel frustrated and miserable about being a parent. Catch that thought and see which ones of the above identified factors can help you resolve it. And then go about making the change.
If you don’t feel miserable (yaay!) focus on how you can improve your happiness. How can you set up enough safeguards in place that your experience does not deteriorate, and will actually flourish, over time?
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