Tagged Happiness

For U.S. Parents, a Troubling Happiness Gap

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For years, social scientists have known that nonparents are happier than parents. Study after study has confirmed the troubling finding that having kids makes you less happy than your child-free peers.

Now new research helps explain the parental happiness gap, suggesting it’s less about the children and more about family support in the country where you live.

Based on data from 22 countries and two international surveys of well-being, researchers found that American parents face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children. The happiness gap between parents and nonparents in the United States is significantly larger than the gap found in other industrialized nations, including Great Britain and Australia. And in other Western countries, the happiness gap is nonexistent or even reversed. Parents in Norway, Sweden and Finland — and Russia and Hungary — report even greater levels of happiness than their childless peers.

The researchers, led by the University of Texas sociology professor Jennifer Glass, looked for factors that might explain the international differences in parental happiness, and specifically why parents in the United States suffer a greater happiness penalty than their peers around the world.

They discovered the gap could be explained by differences in family-friendly social policies such as subsidized child care and paid vacation and sick leave. In countries that gave parents what researchers called “the tools to combine work and family,” the negative impact of parenting on happiness disappeared.

“We comprehensively tested every other alternative,” said Dr. Glass, the lead author of the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September. “The two things that came out most strongly in explaining the variation were the cost of care for the average 2-year-old as a percent of wages and the total extent of paid sick and vacation days.”

Notably, the researchers found that economic differences, whether a parent was married or partnered and whether the pregnancy was planned or unintended had no impact on the happiness gap. They also considered the impact of other family-friendly social policies, such as extended maternity and paternity leaves, flexible schedules and even policies that gave money to parents in the form of a child allowance or monthly payments.

Paid parenting leave has “nowhere near as big an effect as these other two policies, “said Dr. Glass, while the other policies didn’t have a significant impact on the happiness gap. Policies that made it less stressful and less costly to combine child rearing with paid work “seem to be the ones that really matter.”

Those same two policies, she said, were also correlated with increased happiness among nonparents. That more paid sick leave and vacation time would make nonparents happier was no surprise, but “we were a little puzzled that lower child care costs would show an effect on nonparents,” Dr. Glass said. She and her colleagues speculate that the result is what economists call an indirect benefit: Everyone is better off when countries invest in the future of their labor force, and everyone suffers when they don’t.

But while there are certainly distinctions in family policy to be made between the United States and other developed countries, there are also substantial cultural differences in the ways children are raised here and in other countries. Those distinctions are hard to measure, but might also account for some of the relative difference between parental and nonparental happiness.

“There’s an incredible anxiety around parenting here that I just don’t feel in other countries,” said Christine Gross-Loh, the author of “Parenting Without Borders,” a comprehensive look at modern parent culture across the developed world, who is raising her children between the United States and Japan. She points to Americans’ anxiety around children’s college and future prospects, and also to our emphasis on keeping children physically safe, and the harsh judgment of parents who are perceived to be doing a poor job of it.

“In Japan, my 6-year-old and my 9-year-old can go out and take the 4-year-old neighbor, and that’s just normal,” she said, while in the United States that kind of freedom can draw criticism and even lead to interventions by Child Protective Services.

In countries where there is a strong agreement about the norms around parenting, parents may worry less about their own choices. Without a single overarching parenting tradition, American parents may feel like they have “too many choices” as compared to parents in more homogeneous cultures, says W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “A clear and well-defined script can be psychologically comforting,” he said, and its lack can leave parents feeling “unmoored.”

Dr. Glass agrees that cultural differences add to the greater relative parent and nonparent happiness gap — but she notes that those cultural differences are also reflected in our family policies. Much of our anxiety around our children in the United States, she said, is very clearly a reflection of our policy choices.

“We have to compete for good child care. We compete to live where there’s a good elementary school,” she said. “We compete for activities because a child’s entire fate seems to depend on where he goes to college, because there’s no guarantee — if we don’t, our child might be left behind.”

Those fears, Dr. Glass said, come in part from our country’s high tolerance for unequal access to the resources families need. In countries that offer policies supporting a parent’s ability to balance work and family, she sees a commitment to egalitarianism. “A crucial part of what’s going on is the idea that every child deserves an equal chance in life,” she said.

The good news is that the findings show that the happiness gap of parenting is not inevitable. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, said it was a pleasant surprise to see the researchers document the need for better family policies.

“Don’t just swoop in and give a longer maternity leave,” Dr. Coontz said. “It’s a lifetime investment in helping people combine work and family for the long haul.”


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The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study

What does it take to live a good life?

Surveys show that most young adults believe that obtaining wealth and fame are keys to a happy life. But a long-running study out of Harvard suggests that one of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

These are some of the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. The study has revealed some surprising – and some not so surprising – factors that determine whether people are likely to age happily and healthily, or descend into loneliness, sickness and mental decline.

The study’s current director, , outlined some of the more striking findings from the long-running project in a recent TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views.

“We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read,” Dr. Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a recent interview. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics.”

The study began in Boston in the 1930s with two very different groups of young men.

In one case, a team of researchers decided to track Harvard college students through adulthood to see what factors played important roles in their growth and success. “They thought there was too much emphasis placed on pathology at the time and that it would be really useful to study people who were doing well in their young adult development,” Dr. Waldinger said. The study recruited 268 Harvard sophomores and followed them closely, with frequent interviews and health examinations. In recent years the study has also incorporated brain scans, blood draws and interviews with the subjects’ spouses and adult children.

At around the same time the study began, a Harvard Law School professor named Sheldon Glueck started to study young men from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency despite coming from troubled homes. Eventually the two groups were merged into one study.

Over the decades, the men have gone into all walks of life. They’ve become lawyers, doctors, businessmen and — in the case of one Harvard student named John F. Kennedy — president of the United States. Others went down different paths. Some became alcoholics, had disappointing careers or descended into mental illness. Those who remain alive today are in their 90s.

Through the years, the study has produced many notable findings. It showed, for example, that to age well physically, the single most important thing you could do was to avoid smoking. It discovered that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives. It found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression (rather than the other way around).

The study has gone through several directors. Dr. Waldinger, who took over in 2003, is its fourth. He expanded the study so it focused not just on the men but also on their wives and children. The researchers began videotaping the couples in their homes, studying their interactions, and interviewing them separately about nearly every facet of their lives, even day-to-day spats.

As the researchers looked at the factors throughout the years that strongly influenced health and well-being, they found that relationships with friends, and especially spouses, were a major one. The people in the strongest relationships were protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline – even if those relationships had many ups and downs.

“Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time,” Dr. Waldinger said. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Dr. Waldinger found a similar pattern among relationships outside the home. The people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were happier and healthier than those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks.

“Over and over in these 75 years,” Dr. Waldinger said, “our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”

Dr. Waldinger acknowledged that the research showed a correlation, not necessarily causation. Another possibility is that people who are healthier and happier to begin with are simply more likely to make and maintain relationships, whereas those who are sicker gradually become more socially isolated or end up in bad relationships.

But he said that by following the subjects for many decades and comparing the state of their health and their relationships early on, he was fairly confident that strong social bonds are a causal role in long-term health and well-being.

So what concrete actions does he recommend?

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “Something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights. Reach out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years — because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”

Letting Happiness Flourish in the Classroom

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Emma Seppala

Emma SeppalaCredit

When I look out into my classroom, and take the emotional temperature of my students, I’m usually checking for engagement. I want to make sure they feel supported, are interested in the lesson at hand, and that the lesson is relevant to each student.

But happiness? I stopped looking for happiness long ago. I see it periodically, when the conditions are perfect, and the stars align just so. When happiness strikes in my classroom, I relish it as I would any other rare anomaly, like thundersnow or a two-faced calf. Regular sightings, however, seem too much to hope for given the inhospitable climate in many American classrooms.

Emma Seppala, however, the author of “The Happiness Track,” and science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has not lost hope. Dr. Seppala admits that yes, happiness can be a rare beast in our classrooms, but we can create and protect learning conditions in which happiness can flourish.

Happiness, Dr. Seppala explained in an email, is not something we can afford to lose at home or in our classrooms, as it forms the very foundation of deep, meaningful learning. Happy kids show up at school more able to learn because they tend to sleep better and may have healthier immune systems. Happy kids learn faster and think more creatively. Happy kids tend to be more resilient in the face of failures. Happy kids have stronger relationships and make new friends more easily.

Unfortunately, we put our children’s happiness at risk when we model what Dr. Seppala calls the “myths of success”: the belief that success is inextricably tied to stress and anxiety, perseverance at all costs, avoidance of personal weakness, and a myopic focus on cultivating expertise in a specialized niche.

We may tell kids that we want them to be happy, and that we care about their learning more than we care about their grades, but when we model the myths of success in our own lives, they know the truth. Perpetuating these myths, whether through our words or actions, undermines the very happiness and learning we claim to value.

If we truly want to cultivate happiness in our homes and schools, we can’t just pay it lip service. We must model behaviors that, according to Dr. Seppala, make us happier, healthier and more productive.

Live in the moment. Rather than encouraging children to live from one to-do item to the next, help them focus and enjoy whatever activity they are engaged in now. “Research shows our minds wander off task 50 percent of the time. Yet when our mind wanders, we have more negative emotions. While a little bit of stress about the next to-do can serve as a motivator, long-term chronic stress impairs both physical health and intellectual faculties such as attention and memory,” Dr. Seppala said in an email.

Model resilience. “While we can’t often change the work and life demands our children face in their lives, we can help them train their nervous systems to be resilient, and to thrive in the face of difficulties and challenges,” Dr. Seppala said. Talk about how you have overcome challenges, model healthy resilience, and help kids find respite from the pressures of achievement. Techniques such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises help your children rest their minds and bodies, and allow them to recover from the physical and emotional damage stress can impart.

Manage your energy. While negative emotions can be damaging to kids’ mental and physical health, our society’s penchant for constant, high-intensity positive emotions takes a toll as well. “Western societies value excitement and other high-intensity positive emotions over low-intensity positive emotions such as calm. While there’s nothing wrong with excitement and fun, children need to know how to balance excitement with the ability to calm down and function from a centered, peaceful place, saving precious mental energy for tasks that need it most,” Dr. Seppala said.

Do nothing. “Taking time off to disconnect and relax focus helps promote kids’ creativity and insights,” Dr. Seppala wrote. “Children need time for idleness, fun and irrelevant interests, and as research shows C.E.O.s currently value creativity higher than any other trait in the incoming workforce, it behooves you to let your kids relax and access their inner inventor.”

Be kind to yourself. While it’s good to strive for improvement, excessive self-criticism can backfire, and become self-sabotage. Self-criticism maintains focus on the negative, leaving kids anxious, afraid of failure and less likely to learn from mistakes. Self-compassion, however, improves children’s ability to excel in the face of challenges, to develop new skills and to learn from their mistakes.

Be kind to others. Research shows that people who are supportive and compassionate toward others are more successful. Fortunately, Dr. Seppala said, “Children are naturally compassionate and kind; we simply need to protect these traits.”

Children should not be surprised by joy. If they are, the responsibility for its absence lies at the feet of parents, teachers and administrators who have pushed happiness out of its native habitat to make room for the toxic, invasive species of anxiety, stress and fear.

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Why Doctors Care About Happiness

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Danielle Ofri, M.D.

Danielle Ofri, M.D.Credit Joon Park

Working in a general medical practice sometimes feels like being at the greeting station of a Ferris wheel: Every few minutes another person gets off and brings a new set of medical issues into your office.

My first patient on a recent Thursday was a buoyant 71-year-old. Her rotator cuff tendinitis was an occasional bother, as was her allergic rhinitis, but neither got in the way of her picking up her school-age grandchildren every afternoon for a daily playground outing. On rainy days they danced to hip-hop music in her living room, and she showed me the video on her phone.

My next patient was only 43, but his kidneys were grinding to a halt under the weight of two decades of poorly controlled diabetes. Dialysis was looming in the near future, and he alternated between being depressed about it and being in denial of it. Every one of our visits had a funereal atmosphere as we discussed the logistics of something he desperately wanted no part of.

And so it went over the course of the day, changing gears on a dime with each new patient. Along with a swinging pendulum of medical conditions came a similar array, it seemed, of emotions.

The correlation of happiness and health — or unhappiness and poor health — has been noted over the centuries. “He who can believe himself well, will be well,” wrote Ovid, whose robust trope continues to find fertile ground in our current culture of wellness and self-help as well as in a burgeoning body of scientific research. But teasing out cause and effect is thorny.

On one hand, mood could drive health. Happy people are more likely to make salutary choices in their life — exercise, eat their veggies, get regular medical care — and so will become more healthy. When you are depressed or lonely, however, it can be hard to exercise, and that pint of cookie-dough ice cream may seem more welcoming than the chia-kale casserole wilting at the back of the fridge.

On the other hand, health may be the instigator of mood. If you are healthy, you tend to feel good. Having energy allows you to pursue the things you enjoy, and this makes you happy. When you are sick, though, you feel lousy and exhausted — not to mention saddled with medical bills — so it’s hard to pursue the joyful activities of life.

The latest entry in the health and happiness field — the Million Women Study — appears to poke a hole in the accepted dictum that well-being is a driver of good health. By far the largest study on the subject to date, it followed its cohort of middle-aged women in Britain for 10 years. The data showed an association of poor health and unhappiness. But after adjusting for medical conditions, demographics and lifestyle factors, unhappiness was not an independent predictor of increased mortality.

There have been critiques of the study methodology. The evaluation of happiness, for example, was based on a single question and focused on only one moment in time. Controlling for factors like smoking, exercise, income and marital status for the benefit of clean statistics may have ended up eradicating the very mechanisms by which happiness may improve health: quitting smoking, exercising, holding down a good job, staying married.

Small studies have hinted at causality by demonstrating that interventions to increase positive feelings yield improved physiological measurements. But we’ll never be able to answer the question in the purest scientific methodology — randomizing people to happy lives or miserable lives and then following them for a lifetime to see what happens.

Nevertheless, the association of happiness and health remains a potent touchstone in both popular and medical culture. In practical terms, which actually causes the other is less relevant than the fact that both are important. If a patient has poor health and is also feeling miserable, it’s not enough just to address the medical problem. How a person is feeling emotionally needs to be acknowledged and explored.

Doctors, of course, can’t solve the economic, societal and interpersonal challenges that cause unhappiness, but attention to the inner sense of suffering is helpful above and beyond our treatments for the disease itself.

But the opposite may offer an even more powerful payoff. When doctors notice unhappiness in their patients, they should be probing more carefully for hidden illness. Beyond uncovering disorders such as depression, for which unhappiness is a direct symptom, there may be other illnesses lurking.

On a busy clinic day, each time a new person steps off that Ferris wheel into a medical evaluation there are a host of boxes to check off — height, weight, blood pressure, pulse. Lord knows I don’t want to see a “happiness” check-box in the electronic medical record. But the patient’s sense of well-being is something that should definitely register beyond the minor afterthought that it typically merits.

We in the health care professions need to notice and inquire about happiness the same way we do other aspects of our patients’ lives. Lately I’ve started asking about it, and besides getting a much more nuanced understanding of who they are as people, I learn what their priorities are (often quite different from mine as their physician).

I also inquire about obstacles to their happiness, and brainstorm with them on ways to ease some of these. I don’t presume that these challenges are facile to solve, but hopefully our conversation helps let patients know that their happiness matters as much as their cholesterol.

And if increasing happiness does in fact improve health — well, why not try to help our patients achieve it. The side effect profile and cost surely beat most of our current medications, and, at least for now, you don’t have to get prior authorization from an insurance company.


Danielle Ofri’s newest book is What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She is a physician at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, as well as editor in chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. She spoke on Deconstructing Our Perception of Perfection at TEDMED.