Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

Earlier this month I wrote a post called “How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness.”  A reader responded with what I took to be a gentle and well-placed admonishment: “Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy.”  Nevertheless, here I am with another post on how kids affect parental well-being.

The term “well-being” as opposed to “happiness” is the preferred nomenclature of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work I’ve been reading today as part of a story I’m writing about his colleague and disciple Angela Duckworth (who, for her part, studies character traits like self-control and determination that correlate with achievement in school and in life).

Seligman is a lion in psychology—one of the most important members of his field over the last century.  He’s the founder of the “positive psychology” movement which he defines in his most recent book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” as “exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living.” The “positive” in positive psychology is meant to distinguish the pursuit from traditional branches of psychology focused on negative aspects of experience like depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, etc.

In “Flourish” Seligman argues that there are five components of well-being that go by the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

I thought it would be interesting to rate on a scale, from -5 to +5, how becoming a parent has impacted my life in each of those five dimensions.  Here goes:

Positive Emotion:
This refers to how often you experience the best feelings in life, among which Seligman includes “pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort.”  When assessing Jay and Wally’s impact in this realm I’m also going to dock points for negative emotions like anger, boredom, and frustration that they sometimes inspire.

Overall, Jay and Wally have greatly enhanced the quantity of positive emotion in my life.  And these contributions are not close to being outweighed by negative emotions. I’m definitely prone to anger and frustration but I’ve found that I tend to experience those feelings no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whereas the possibility of positive emotion seems to me to be much more situationally dependent.  So basically, I’m not much more angry/frustrated/bored as a Dad than I was before Jay, but I’m a lot more rapt/ecstatic/comforted.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Positive Emotion a +4.

Seligman defines engagement as “flow”: “being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.”

This is a tough one to rate.  On the one hand, when I’m up at 5:30am with Wally the minutes pass like crawling across a parking lot littered with broken glass.  But on the other hand, I have found that parenthood is a nice antidote to self-consciousness.  I remember looking in the mirror while holding Jay a couple weeks after he was born: I was so much more interested in the baby I was holding than in my own reflection, and I think something like that change of focus has maintained over the last 2+ years.

But overall this diminishment of self-consciousness (or diminishment of focus on my-self) has been less profound than the anti-flow impact parenthood has had, in terms of making me more preoccupied with activities like chores and household routines.

So, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Engagement a -2.

On the plus side, I’ve formed two extraordinary new relationships with Jay and Wally.  And Caroline and I get to share the intimacy of having and raising kids together.

On the minus side, Caroline and I share the intimacy of raising kids together. Our marriage revolves around Jay and Wally, which was made apparent the other night when we went out to dinner for Caroline’s birthday, just the two of us, and remembered a long forgotten secret: just how much we like being together as adults. (We intend, btw, to improve on this by kicking Wally out of our bed as soon as he gets over his current cold.)

And in terms of other relationships—friends, family—having kids has been a net negative to this point.  In a practical sense there’s just not as much time or mental energy to go around.  And on a dispositional level, as I wrote over the summer, becoming a parent has narrowed my ethical circle: the stronger my ethical attachments to Jay and Wally, the weaker my ethical attachments to all the other people in my life.

On the bright side, I suspect that Jay and Wally’s impact on our marriage and on all the other relationships in our lives is more negative now than it will be even in a few years when they’re a little more independent and don’t consume quite so much of our mental and physical energy.

Still, for now I rate parenthood’s contribution to Relationships a -3.

Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than the self.”  Here, parenting is a home run winner.  For reasons I’ve written about a lot,  Jay basically solved my longstanding meaning problem the day he was born.

I rate parenthood’s contribution to Meaning a +5.

There are some confounding factors here.  In the three years before Jay was born I was pretty lacking in career direction, and Reversion to the Mean suggests that my early-thirties were likely to be a more fruitful period in my professional life regardless of how many kids I had.

That said, I have found Jay and Wally to be a spur to work harder and to be more serious about figuring out what I want to do in life.  But I hesitate to give too high a rating here because the optimal conditions for Achievement would seem to be having a lot of career direction and not having any kids to worry about.

Still, given my particular career circumstances at the time Jay was born and the changes that have happened since, I rate parenthood’s contribution to Achievement a +1.

Totaling it all up, becoming a parent has improved my well-being by 5 points.  Seligman doesn’t provide a scale to evaluate what that means, but my intuition says it’s a pretty big positive change.  At the same time, Seligman warns that when people rate their own happiness, 70% of the score they give themselves tends to be determined by the mood they’re in at the time they perform the rating, and only 30% of the rating tends to be determined by analytic judgment.  And, despite the fact that Jay, Wally, and I are all suffering from our first colds of the year, I’m in a pretty good mood today.

I’d be very interested to know how readers of the blog assess the impact of having kids on their own lives in these categories.  Please share in the comments if inclined.


6 thoughts on “Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

  1. Not having kids, I can’t say yet how they’ll affect my well being, but one thing I’ve always feared from reading your stories and hearing from other new parents is how little sleep I’ll get and how tired I’ll be all the time. But then again this seems to be a minor factor in your consideration of your own well being. Do you think we overrate the importance of sleep pre-parenthood?

    • Being exhausted all the time can definitely turn a person into a shadow of himself. And there’s no doubt that taking care of a newborn is exhausting. There are two mitigating factors, though: 1) You do to some extent get used to functioning on less sleep; and 2) The period of intense sleep-deprivation is relatively short-lived, like 2-months. From 2m to say 1y (if you play your cards right) it’s more like sleep-disruption with occasional periods of sleep deprivation when, as is the case at home right now, a baby gets sick, or as was the case with our sister last week, a baby travels to a new time zone. So, two years in I’d say that sleep-effects are relatively minor compared to all the other ways (pro and con) that having kids has changed my life.

  2. Relationships = -3? Kevin! The little lumps of whine that you are caring for will be just about the deepest relationships and the most long lasting ones in your life. If you miss an evening with an acquaintance or two, it’s still a way plus on this one. And they will lead you to making friends with their friends and their friends families, et cetera.

  3. While raising children, sometimes it can feel as if the days drag by, with so much energy expended on the logistics and sleep deprivations. But the years fly by, believe me.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Master Parent’s comments! Take the long view, or even the mid view, and you will see relationships with others growing, not shrinking in number or in quality. I wasn’t quite sure of what you meant by “ethical attachments” too and would like to hear more about that.

    Also, is achievement limited to outside “professional achievement”? thanks

    • “Relationships growing, not shrinking, in number or quality” is a very nice and encouraging idea.

      By ethical attachments I meant commitment to other people. My feeling is that since becoming a parent my ethical commitments have shifted towards Jay and Wally, and consequentially, away from other people. To take an abstract example, if I were faced with a situation where two people were drowning- Jay and a friend of mine- and I only had time to save one, I’d choose to save James. That’s an extreme situation, but I think that mindset filters down into practical everyday life in small ways, too.

      And Achievement, as Seligman defines it, is accomplishment pursued for its own sake, “even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships.” It could be professional, or it could be something like wanting to win at bridge, or run a faster marathon.

  4. Interesting. I would just think the ethical attachments have shifted but not caused a net loss. It would be a loss if you felt no attachments to anyone!

    I do see how the day to day chores and work in taking care of children can seem like a bit of a downturn in achievement. I don’t know anyone who changes diapers for the sheer pleasure of it or desire to improve skill at it—lol.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s