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Tuesday, 25 June 2019

What makes a happy or meaningful life?

My last blog post was looking at recent headlines that couples that did not have children were happier than those who did.

I wanted to follow up on the topic of happiness.  I'm always curious on how happiness is measured and the difficulty that these discussions of happiness have for people who are trying to decide whether to have children or not.   The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley has been exploring this issue and had published an article a few years ago in their online magazine called Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? which I think gives a great overview of the issue.

Many of those looking at happiness say that how we define and measure happiness may not take into account the issue of fulfilment and 'living a meaningful life'.  At the end of this blog, I've listed 5 major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life that researcher Roy Baumeister has identified during the course of his research.

Parenting provides an interesting point of debate between researchers.  Many conventional research studies of happiness.... as I explored in my last blog post.... tend to show that parents lead less happy lives than those that are child free.  Other studies, such as Baumeisters, show that while parents are less happy, they tend to lead more meaningful lives.   While others, such as Sonja Lyubormirsky, of the University of California, say that trying to separate out a 'happy life' from a 'meaningful life' is problematic.

"In a recent study, she and her colleagues measured happiness levels and meaning in parents, both in a “global” way—having them assess their overall happiness and life satisfaction—and while engaged in their daily activities. Results showed that, in general, parents were happier and more satisfied with their lives than non-parents, and parents found both pleasure and meaning in childcare activities, even in the very moments when they were engaged in those activities.

“Being a parent leads to all of these good things: It gives you meaning in life, it gives you goals to pursue, it can make you feel more connected in your relationships,” says Lyubomirsky. “You can’t really talk about happiness without including all of them.”

Lyubomirsky feels that researchers who try to separate meaning and happiness may be on the wrong track, because meaning and happiness are inseparably intertwined.

“When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness,” she says."

One of my conclusions from reading the different articles and viewpoints is that it would be too simplistic to say that it is either or not having children that leads to having a more happy or meaningful life.  There are a whole host of facts at play and we can create happiness and meaning whatever we choose.

Reading Baumeisters descriptions of what helps us live happy and meaningful lives below, it is clear that we can all create circumstances for us to lead the lives we want. 

One point that all the researchers seem to be clear about:  having social connections and friendships where we both give and receive that brings happiness and meaning to our lives.   We could get this through volunteering at a care home,  assisting an older relative with chores.  being part of a choir, and spending time with friends. 


Five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life as identified by Roy Baumeister and his research team. (published in  Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?

"Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.

Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.

Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.

Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.

Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness."

Friday, 14 June 2019

Would you (and your relationship) be happier without children?

There has been lots of buzz in the press during the last few weeks about research showing women without children are happier than women with children or a spouse. (see Women Happier Without Children)  Paul Dolan, who has been writing and speaking on this issue was referring to the American Time Use Survey 'which compared levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated and widowed individual.'  Despite the media focus on Dolan's work, there have been some critiques of Dolan's assumptions and reading of the data such as in this article here: Happiness and Academic Malpractice  .

This article published on the Institute for Family Studies website looks closer at Dolan's assertions;
Are Married People Still Happier? 

'Consistent with prior research, parents are a little less happy than non-parents, provided they are unmarried. In addition, the results don’t look that different when limited to female survey respondents ....Children increase unhappiness a little more for separated/divorced and never-married women, likely in response to the challenges of being a single mother.'

There was a more developed piece of research  on a related topic of how having children impacts on a couples happiness  published a few years ago called Parenthood and Levels of Marital Satisfaction 
At the beginning of the article, the authors set out the context of their research:

'In contrast to previous historical eras, individuals today have an unusual amount of freedom to decide if and when they will have children and how many they will have. In many cases, this is a mutual decision reached between marital partners. In making this decision, couples some- times consider an important question: "How will children affect our relationship?" Folk wisdom suggests that babies bring couples closer together, and some couples name greater closeness as a reason for having a baby (Brinley, 1991). Unfortunately, some scientific research suggests that couples actually grow less satisfied with their marital relationship after having children (see Belsky & Pensky, 1988, for a review). Others may argue that children will have no effect (that an unhappy marriage will remain unhappy, and a happy marriage will remain happy)'

They explore reasons why the transition to having children might decrease happiness within a marriage.    As they point out, having a child can significantly change usual routines such as sleeping patterns leading to tiredness and stress for new parents.   They also mention ways that traditional gender roles put more expectations on women and more of the work of child-care.  As I've mentioned here on the blog before, these traditional expectations cause many women who aren't sure if they want children to worry that they will be trapped and lose their identity if they become mothers.  There fears are often confirmed when they see friends and colleagues who are bearing the brunt of child-rearing. 

The addition of children to a family can lead to a reorganization of social roles along traditional lines. This is especially true for women, who are often expected to take on a primarily care giving role for the child. The father also may be expected to take on a greater bread-winning role than before. A problem arises when the couple does not desire traditional roles. Women, for example, may give up or downgrade their professional roles for the sake of their care-giving roles. The result may be more power for husbands (who now are the significant or sole breadwinners; Feeney et al., 1994). Women also may experience some psychological stress as they see themselves primarily in a care-giving role, especially if they are accustomed to a professional role.

One of the interesting aspects to this research is that at the end, the researchers say that they do not wish to dissuade people from having children. Rather, they hope that people are able to identify the potential stress points that having children bring.  In doing, so they may be able to address some of the potential problems before they arise.

I completely agree with the researchers as this what I do with my clients.  I work with my clients to explore what their fears or anxieties about what having children are.  And then, we look at what strategies could they (and their partners) implement to make these things less likely to happen.   If my clients identify some real solutions, they can find they are more drawn to the option of having children.  If they do this and still don't feel the desire to have children, it can confirm to the client they would rather be child-free and will allow that client to embrace that choice... without worried that they are being held back by an internalized fear or anxiety.

I'm hoping to explore this topic in more depth later this month - I'm particularly interested in the topic of how we measure happiness, particularly when it comes to having children or not.  I'll see what research I can find and report back!