Elizabeth Elizardi, MAPP '10, is a parent coach, educational consultant, and founder of Strengths Hub, LLC, an online parenting community. Building on her experience as a parent, educator, MAPP graduate, and online contributor to Psychology Today, Elizabeth hopes to build an international network of flourishing parents who cultivate and exercise strategies for increased well-Being while raising children. Full Bio. Elizabeth's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.
In his new book, Flourish, Dr. Martin Seligman writes that if maximizing happiness were the sole explanation for how we choose to live, our species would have become extinct a long time ago. Why is that? We would choose not to reproduce because the research tells us that having children does not maximize happiness. Armed with this knowledge, many couples are choosing to remain childless and emphatically protest that children are not a necessary ingredient to a successful marriage. The Pew Research Center reports that one in five women end their child-bearing years without children. This choice has risen 80% since the 1970’s. 65% of those surveyed state that their main purpose in getting married is happiness ad fulfillment.
Why do people choose to have children?
With a wellspring of data and research suggesting that children do not increase levels of happiness, why do some people choose to have kids? Because they choose based on more than a desire to maximize happiness. They choose based on meaning. Despite the decline in happiness, meaningfulness rises among couples choosing to have children. Parenting can help satisfy all four needs for meaning outlined by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs:
- Purpose – Present events draw meaning from their connection to the future. As a parent, how many times have you pictured the moment when your son or daughter walks across the stage on graduation day> Have you imagined playing with your granchildren?
- Values – Values help people decide whether certain actions are right or wrong. If actions taken as a parent are guided by values, then parents are more secure in knowing they have done the right thing.
- Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can make a difference and that you are have the competencies to reach your goals. As parents, think about all of the milestones – sleeping through the night, toilet-training, driving, going to college – your skills as a parent directly impact your child’s transitions through the stages of development.
- Self-Worth – Seeking reasons for believing that you are a good or worthy person. Getting a note from your child, a painted picture, a smile, a hug, or a simple “thank you” can boost levels of self-worth for any parent.
These four elements seem simplistically linear, because meaning is a stable, nonphysical reality, but life with children is wildly dynamic and malleable. A typical day is thrown off kilter with changes in schedule, temperament, and environment. In the midst of the push and pull of the day, how do parents find meaning in the concrete, sometimes trivial tasks of pouring a bowl of cereal, making a child’s lunch, or driving to soccer practice?
Flourishing parents seem to do two things well: engage high levels of meaning and diversify resources.Meaning oscillates between various levels. Low levels of meaning involve concrete, immediate, and specific meanings: how cooking dinner for your family involves standing in the kitchen, moving your arm back and forth to stir the soup. Higher levels of meaning involve connection across time and to broader goals or values: how cooking dinner for your family builds connections among family members and establishes good communication between you and your children. Parents shift between levels of meaning, typically shifting down when experiencing difficulties or problems in order to increase problem-solving capabilities, and shifting up when things are going well. The shift upward is a positive event that enhances satisfaction and the sense of fulfillment. Based on this research, remaining at a high level of meaning may allow parents to rise above the simple, mundane, rudimentary tasks of child-rearing, to see the greater purpose or meaning in any given situation.
Flourishing parents diversify meaning with multiple sources of purpose, self-efficacy, values, and self-worth, which safeguard them against the unpredictability of life. For instance, if I derive meaning in my life solely from being a parent, then what happens when there is a divorce, teenage rebellion, unexpected family illness, or my children move away to college? Investing time in other domains, such as friends, work, or a life passion is a healthy way for parents to make meaning in other ways. Even though the revised edition of Maslow’s Heirarchy positions parenting at the apex, denoting that children are a parent’s life work, flourishing parents have a diversified portfolio of meaning-making experiences.
Meaning is about connection, and believing in and serving something greater than oneself. Meaningfulness in parenting is a personal covenant to accept imperfections and the dynamic changes that arise. The challenge is to intentionally engage in high levels of meaning and diversify resources for finding meaning. Albert Camus, the French author, journalist and philosopher, wrote in his last published lecture entitled Create Dangerously:
“One may long, as I do, for a gentler flame, a respite, a pause for musing. But perhaps there is no other peace for the artist than what he finds on the heat of combat. “Every wall is a door,” Emerson correctly said. Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is-in the very thick of the battle. For in my opinion, and this is where I shall close, it is there.
Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gently stirring of life and hope.” ~ Albert Camus
Baumeister, R. F. & Vohs, K. D. (2005). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 608-618). New York: Oxford University Press.
Greenleaf, R. K. (2008). The Servant as Leader. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.