Last night I sat down at the dinner table with my husband to share some of the research I found for this article. I started to tell him about the staggering statistic from the Gottman Institute that 67% of married couples report a decline in overall happiness within the year after their first child is born. I uttered the words, “67% of…” when our three-year-old interrupted with a request; something more to drink, help with her baby doll, or a comment about the dog. My husband appropriately finished my sentence with “What? 67% of conversations are interrupted by your children?” We both laughed, gave our daughter the attention she was seeking, and finished our conversation about happiness post kids.
Editor’s note This is the first article of a new PPND author, Elizabeth Elizardi. Welcome Elizabeth!
The theory of Well-Being advanced by Martin Seligman in his upcoming book on flourishing focuses on five pillars; Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA). Each of these elements contributes to well being, leads to human flourishing and can be cultivated through intentional activities.
Parenting is a life domain which can dramatically effect well-being. Men and women grapple with a new identity realizing that they are fathers and mothers, with all of the negative and positive connotations. They have a new role, one that can be heavily influenced by societal norms and pressures. However, the five pillars of well being, when applied to the parenting domain, can lead to flourishing families. How? Through PERMA parenting. PERMA parents inculcate the five principles of well-being into their parenting behaviors with their children and relationship with their spouses. Below is part one of a five part series on how to be a PERMA Parent.
Part One: Positive Emotions
Aren’t children supposed to make you happy? Psychologists have been interested in the answer to this question for the past fifty years. A 1957 study revealed that 83% of new parents went though moderate to severe crisis in the transition to parenthood. John and Julie Gottman, authors of And Baby Makes Three, confirm the statistic mentioned in the beginning of this article through sixteen long-term research studies of couples with children. Most happiness research points out the fact that children do not cause higher levels of happiness, which prompts the admonition that child rearing indeed affects happiness, positively and negatively at the individual and couple level.
What causes a shift in happiness post-kids?
Several of the noted authors and researchers mentioned above suggest that couples who have unrealistic expectations of what life is like post-kid may encounter negative emotions caused by the overwhelming demands on psychological resources; physical (falling asleep at 8:00), mental (why did I put the cereal box in the refrigerator?), emotional (putting yourself in timeout) and spiritual (you may question your belief in God after your child has thrown up in the aircraft, in the airport, and in the car on the way home).Being optimistic about becoming a parent is natural. Seeing that little smile, feeling he tiny fingers wrapped around yours, hearing the adorable infant noises, or watching as your child goes to her first day of kindergarten are joyful moments. But does tempered optimism balance out a new parent’s happiness forecasting? With tempered optimism couples create an amalgam of optimistic thoughts about the joyful aspects of parenting mixed with a realistic interpretation of the challenges they will experience. Leading psychologists note that the most important thing in a baby’s life is a loving parental relationship. Adopting an attitude of tempered optimism may be one key ingredient to maintaining a stable and supportive relationship with a spouse while raising children. You will expect challenges and obstacles, but will be well-prepared to overcome them with confidence and competence.
What can I do to build positive emotions into my parenting?Cultivating positive emotions with your partner is one way to ensure a loving and stable relationship for your family. Flourishing families start with a flourishing couple. Build a positive parental relationship with some of these suggested interventions:
- Make a Virtues Proclamation. Sit down with your partner and discuss what virtues and strengths you value in each other. Although there are many ways to carry out this exercise, I personally like to use Virtues Cards. There is even an Iphone App (Virtues Reflections). Next, write down the three or four virtues that you want to bring into your parenting. How will you treat each other in your role as a parent? Construct a “Virtues Proclamation” and post it somewhere visible. This is your living legacy to your children.
- Practice Appreciative Parenting. Reflect on your strongest moments as a parent. What were you doing? What was it about you? What was it about your partner? What was it about the environment? What was it about your children that made this moment so strong and impressionable? Write down these key points as a reminder of what brings you positive emotions.
- Ritualize. Tal Ben-Shahar advises individuals to opt for incremental change instead of ambitious failure when making life changes. Make having conversations with your spouse a ritual. Find time to be emotionally available to each other, without just broadcasting your day. Emotional intimacy leads to physical intimacy, both of which are bolsters for a fulfilling relationship.
One way to start your PERMA Parenting plan is to go on a strengths date. Pick a time and place to share revelations with your spouse and create your road map for the smooth, yet bumpy ride on the parenting highway. With the holidays quickly approaching, you can give the gift of time, attention and affection and create a PERMAnent solution for maintaining a loving relationship despite the woes of parenting.
Virtues Cards available from the Virtues Project
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.
Bergsma, A. (2010, September). No silver linings, please- Why being pessimistic is often the most optimistic thing you can do. Ode Magazine. V. 8. 62-66.
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Gottman, J. and Gottman, J. S. (2008). And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press.