August 10, 2010 by Dr. Neal Mayerson ·
I have written a couple times about parenting, always when studies have hit the press with messages that suggest that parenting is bad for your happiness and that parents have little influence over their child’s (especially a teen’s) decisions and development.
The most recent article appeared July 4 in New York Magazine. Entitled “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” it examined the relationship between child-rearing and happiness. The author cited scientific studies that have shown the day-to-day tasks of parenting as negatively affecting caregiver happiness.
Well, maybe. First, we need to carefully consume scientific evidence. Conclusions from scientific research should come from bodies of studies performed by independent researchers as opposed to single studies – replication is the sine qua non of science. Further, the politics and business of science result in less-than-comprehensive representation of legitimate studies in science publications. Some studies are rejected based on matters other than their pure scientific merit (professional publications also have to sell their wares). And there is a ubiquitous bias against publishing studies with only negative results (though their methods and questions may be very relevant and informative). Finally, statistical procedures can be imperfectly applied or interpreted. This is not the place for a critique of science as an epistemological method, but instead a place to note that the casual reader can tend to over-value results if they are presented as science.
Second, the advent of the field of positive psychology has, by commercialism more than design, fueled the underlying cultural obsession with self-satisfaction. Happiness hit the newsstands and airwaves, appealing to this pursuit of self-satisfaction, and commercialism has been leading the movement from near its beginning. What has been lost to a good degree is the brilliant insights that Martin Seligman brought forth when he established this “new” positive psychology about 10 years ago.
Dr. Seligman coined a term – “authentic happiness” – to distinguish it from ordinary notions of happiness. His reference point for this new term was Aristotle’s concept of “the good life” – a life that is virtuous in the way it is lived – during happy times and unhappy times. He postulated that life experiences can be thought of as yielding three psychological states – positive feelings, strong levels of engagement, and a sense of purpose/meaning.
Some studies to date from different researchers have shown that a blend of life experiences that produce engagement and meaning is more important to “authentic happiness” than a blend that primarily produce pleasant feelings (e.g. “situational” happiness). To my point above, the science is not incontrovertible on “authentic” vs. “situational” happiness, but so far is consistent in its findings and, at the same time, convergent with other knowledge we have about living life well.
So, when it comes to parenting, is any parent unaware that many of the tasks of caring for children are less-than-pleasing in and of themselves? Are any bodybuilders unaware that, in the moments of pushing their bodies, they feel more pain than pleasure? Do any mountain climbers need studies to show that much of the time, their pursuit is scary, stressful, and physically painful?
Most of us have come to know that to take on tasks that we find meaningful involves accepting lots of time “digging in the trenches.” And, since the ultimate outcomes of our efforts are determined to a degree by forces outside our control, we come to learn to find meaning in the process in addition to the outcome. Do some parents have experiences of heartfelt, hard struggling with raising their children only to experience ungratefulness and disappointment? Yes, that happens some. Do some athletes dedicate years of sacrifice, pain, and monastic living only to sustain an injury that brings their pursuit to a screeching halt? Yes, that happens.
Life is full of disappointments…AND full of joy. It is a rich mixture of everything when pursued to its fullest. Positive psychology is a science that aims to understand how we use our best qualities to handle well the cards that life deals us, and to be active agents in our own lives to construct experiences that yield an optimal blending of pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
So, “positive parenting” is an approach that poses the following questions to parents:
• Are the totality of experiences I am constructing for my child going to a.) adequately engage his/her talents, interests, and character, and b.) be meaningful to him/her, while at the same time, c.) have adequate amounts of pleasure sprinkled in?
• Are my life experiences, parenting and outside of parenting, adequately balanced among pleasure, engagement, and meaning?
Parents are bound to experience feelings that run the gamut from negative to positive. Purpose-driven parenting produces different experiences and expectations than parenting driven mainly by the pursuit of happiness.