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
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:
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.