Study after study shows that parenting decreases people’s happiness, at least in the early years of doing it. No surprise there. Changing poopy diapers stinks. Power struggles with preschoolers are exhausting, and no fun for anyone.
Parenting soaks up all your extra time and money. It leaves you too wiped out for sex, hobbies and work. You learn to long for sleep. Of course you’re less happy than you were before your bundle of joy came along.
Yet few parents express any regrets about having kids. In fact, many of us like having a baby so much we go on to have more babies.
Are we just lunatics? Nope. Happiness just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Parents are chasing something more compelling than happiness. We’re opening ourselves up to an elusive state of well-being that Martin Seligman, father of happiness studies, calls flourishing.
In his new book, Flourish, Seligman writes about what he thinks matters more than simple happiness. The New York Times explores his new ideas, which go beyond the pursuit of happiness to look at other essential components of well-being: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
While parenting doesn’t fill us with joy all day long, it does lead to flourishing. As the New York Times puts it:
Some happiness researchers have suggested that parents delude themselves about the joys of children: They focus on the golden moments and forget the more frequent travails. But Dr. Seligman says that parents are wisely looking for more than happy feelings.
Our children may annoy, frustrate and infuriate us, but we wouldn’t trade them for laid-back European vacations and a full night’s sleep. That’s not because we’re crazy people. It’s because children fill our lives with meaning and richness. They lead us into deeper relationships, more intense moments of joy, and a profound sense of having done something worth doing.
For all its challenges, parenting offers a hefty dose of all the essential parts of well-being Seligman identifies: we get rushes of unconditional love when our babies smile up at us, we have hours lost in the flow of teaching a six-year-old to read or catch a ball, and throughout it we are constantly called to recognize a greater sense of meaning in what we do. With any luck, there are days when we get to sit back with pride and marvel at the amazing people our children are becoming.
How has having kids helped you flourish?