Why Parenthood Makes You More Mindful (and Happy!)
My husband and I recently became parents – with all its magical moments and profound challenges. As a psychologist who studies happiness, meditation and psychological well-being, I have been struck by one thing. We sometimes think of parents as harried, tired and exhausted. We feel that parents have very little control of their lives. And that’s true. As parents ourselves, we often feel like we are losing our minds or losing touch with any ounce of wisdom that we might have had. Yet what we don’t realize is that parenthood actually making us more mindful and wise in three important ways. And there’s research to back that up.
1. You stop being attached to plans and outcomes.
When non-parents plan to go out on a fun outing or decide to go to bed early to get a nice long night of sleep, their plans usually work out (and if they don’t, they get pretty upset). Parents, on the other hand, simply stop expecting things to go a certain way. Things may go great, but they may not. Nights, for example. (We, for example, still haven’t slept through the night since giving birth over a year ago!). You may have a great experience or be doing damage control the entire time. As parents, you stop being fixated on things having to go your way. You become more accepting of what is and learn to regulate your emotions. You become humbler because you realize that you don’t really have full control. A parent is always like a beginner because every moment is new, every age is different, and every child is a new experience. As my husband, who was trained in the military, would say: You’ve learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And you’ve learned to have that proverbially Zen beginner’s mind.
2. You Gain a Deep Sense of Purpose.
Research shows that becoming a parent gives you a sense of purpose – and happiness. All of a sudden, you aren’t the center of the universe anymore. Your children come first. You begin to live with a sense of service – taking responsibility for the lives of others. Research on psychological well-being shows that both purpose and living with a sense of service are tremendous determinants of a fulfilling life – not to mention that it boosts your longevity and cardiovascular health. Moreover, with that sense of a larger purpose, you automatically stop sweating the small stuff. So the kitchen is a mess and the cat is drinking out of the faucet again, you forgot to take the trash out on trashday you’re your car is dirty. That’s AOK. There are bigger fish to fry.
3. You Become Poignantly Aware of the Passage of Time.
Children – whose rates of growth and development are often staggering – are daily reminders that things are changing and that time is passing quickly. As a parent, you know you need to enjoy the moment now because soon your tots will be teens and then twenty-going-on-thirtie-somethings. As a mom friend shared with me: “The days are long but the months are short.” Why does this awareness make you more mindful and happy? Research shows that, the more you are aware of the passage of time – especially that things are changing and coming to an end – the more you start to live in the present, savoring every positive experience and giving less weight to the negative ones.
These psychological boosts may be the reason that parenthood significantly increases your happiness and health biologically. The bonding you experience with a child, for example, releases hormones associated with trust, connection and well-being. Research shows that the “cuddle” and feel good hormone oxytocin courses through both mothers and fathers who bond with their child, research shows. The more affectionately involved a mom is with her child, and the more a father is involved in playing with a child and helping her explore the world, the higher the parents’ levels of oxytocin.
Finally, while sleep deprivation and other costs of parenthood can seem taxing on the body, research shows that parenthood may also have health benefits like lowering blood pressure. In fact, parents are 52% less likely to develop a cold (and this was not due to having been exposed to the virus from their kids!)