November 14, 2010 Leave a comment
Really interesting article from Shankar Vedantam on parenthood and happiness (a subject you know is near and dear to my heart). First, the analytical essence, which echoes that which I’ve argued myself before:
At the end of a long day, after a rotten commute filled with road rage and little accomplished at work, with chores piled up at home and the weekend nowhere in sight, my 4-year-old daughter clambered onto the sofa next to me, cuddled into my arms, and planted a moist, unasked-for kiss on my cheek.
Poof. The exhaustion disappeared, the frustrations of the day melted away. I soaked in a bath of oxytocin. Everything was right with the world…
The research into happiness and parenting arrives at its results [parents are typically found to be less happy than non parents] by measuring how people feel at regular intervals during the day. If you asked parents every 15 minutes how they feel, the data would read:
7:15 a.m.: Max spilled water on the breakfast table and ruined my Mac. God!
7:30 a.m.: Rachel slapped Max. Max pulled Rachel’s hair. I need tranquilizers.
[there's plenty more; you get the drift]
And yet. Let’s go back to the sofa and that cuddle and kiss. It was a fleeting moment, but it genuinely changed how I felt about the day.
It was at that moment of bliss that I realized how the objective parenting research and the subjective parenting experience could both be right. Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss.
Now, here’s the insight I really love:
Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.
We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.
Children regularly give parents the kind of highs that only narcotics can rival. The unpredictability of those moments of bliss is an important factor in their addictiveness. If you give animals a predictable reward—say, a shot of sugar every time they press a lever—you can get them to press that lever quite regularly. But if you want irrational and addictive behavior, you make the reward unpredictable. Pressing the lever produces sugar, but only once every 10 tries. Sometimes, the animal might have to go 20 or 30 tries without a reward. Sometimes it gets a big jolt of sugar three tries in a row. If you train an animal to work for an unexpected reward, you can get it to work harder and longer than if you train it to work for a predictable reward.
Vedantam points out that he knows of no empirical evidence for his conjecture that parenthood may be neuro-chemically quite similar to addiction, but it strikes me as a fascinating and compelling idea. Addict or not, I’ll take it. Sure beats heroin.