Overcoming the paradox of parenthood – ensuring happiness with kids

Overcoming the paradox of parenthood – ensuring happiness with kids

by Robert Biswas-Diener (www.intentionalhappiness.com)

Most people claim to want to have children and just about everybody loves their children. Which is why it is so interesting that Nobel-Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues found that working women consider taking care of kids to be about on par with commuting and doing domestic chores. This puzzling attitude about the joys of parenting isn’t limited to women either: many study have shown that parenting is not associated with higher happiness, and is often associated with a dip in well-being. To be sure, it’s not what we want, but it is what we get.

Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky recently tackled this issue in a new publication. In it, she and her co-author begin by outlining the reasons for having children, apart from the impulse to pass along our genes. From an evolutionary perspective, kids offer long-term benefits such as companionship and security in old age, that outweigh the short-term costs. Lyubomirsky also argues that parenting children, in the modern context, is divorced from traditional practices that may have made the burden easier and more enjoyable. Children continue to live at home well into adolescence, for instance, where in the past they would have married young and moved away. In addition, there is a common push toward raising children “on one’s own” instead of relying heavily on the help of grandparents  and other community members. Thus, it could be that the dip in happiness associated with parenting is a distinctly modern, and mostly western, phenomenon.

More importantly, Lyubomirsky argues that the studies showing lower happiness of parents may not capture the whole picture. First, research captures averages, which means it accounts for both high emotional highs and low lows. Second, there are all sorts of worthwhile psychological outcomes beyond happiness that might be associated with parenting. Parenting, for example, might be associated with more meaning in life, more self-confidence and a richer sense of identity. This is just one more example of how too much emphasis on emotional happiness can distract from other desirable outcomes.

To avoid the paradox of parenthood in your own life, try the following:

1. Take time to savor the positive moments with your children. The hectic pace of modern life makes it easy to rush past the best moments of the day.

2. Even when you feel aggravated or worn out from your parenting duties consider the deeper meaning in what you are doing. When you consider the tasks of parenting concretely– like having your kids brush their teeth or tucking them in at night– it can seem like a burden. But, when considered abstractly– as in helping them develop good self-care attitudes and taking a moment before bed to provide connection and security– these tasks take on renewed meaning.