Mindfulness, parenting, and happiness


Bodhipaksa and his daughter, Maia

Most people will tell you the greatest happiness in their lives comes from having children, but research shows that most people aren’t all that happy while parenting. Can mindfulness make parenting more enriching? Bodhipaksa thinks it does.

In an article in Atlantic magazine, author and Yale University professor of psychology Paul Bloom makes a provocative observation about parenthood and happiness:

Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ’empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t.

Although researchers have endured heated responses for daring to suggest that children may not be life’s greatest blessing as far as happiness goes, I’m happy to accept this as a fact. One of the ways that this has been established is by beeper studies. Here’s Bloom in an interview:

…the literature is pretty clear that if you beep people on a beeper while they’re with their children and ask them how they’re feeling, they’re not so happy. But if you ask people what they like most in life, they say they love their kids—their kids are the great joys of their lives … Kids really make us unhappy, but we think they make us happy.

I think the delusion is more likely to be rooted in genetics than culture, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the beeper thing reminded me of the old idea of the “mindfulness bell” — a bell that rings either at regular or random intervals during the day, reminding you to check in with yourself. I used such bells as an integral part of the retreat schedule while leading working retreats at Dhanakosa retreat centre in Scotland; we can become overly engrossed in work to the point that we lose touch with ourselves, and as a consequence we steer ourselves blindly into suffering. Think of working on a computer, realizing that you’ve been so intent on achieving some task that your back and neck are aching. It’s because you’ve been focused on a task that you haven’t paid attention to your own well-being.

So for the last few days I’ve been checking in with myself while parenting, not just seeing whether or not I’m happy, but seeing what I can do to bring about more happiness. My inner mindfulness bell will ring, I’ll remember to check in with myself while playing with or taking care of my daughter, and find sometimes that I’m not really engaged, part of me wishing that I was reading a book or watching a movie. So I bring my attention more into the present moment, appreciating how delightful my daughter is, appreciating that I’m alive and aware, relaxing my body, and letting myself be happy. It often seems to be this way, that happiness is there but simply obscured by some inner activity like wishing I was doing something else. When I let got of that activity, happiness once again comes to the forefront of my awareness.

So although having children may tend to make us less happy, I don’t think that’s inevitable. With greater mindfulness our parenting can be rich and fulfilling.

BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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