Friday, March 28, 2014

Parenthood, Trial or Tribulation? Part 2

On New Year’s Day I became a parent, sparking my curiosity in the research on parenting and well-being and inspiring a four-part series on parenthood and happiness. This is the second post. Check out the first post here.

Are parents happier than non-parents? Researchers have generally set about trying to answer this deceptively simple question in three ways:

Are people with children happier than those without children?

This is the most common approach to research on parenthood and well-being. In these studies, researchers typically tackle large datasets with thousands of adults, comparing the well-being of people with children to people without children. Although the approach is straightforward, the results are mixed with some studies finding parents are happier than non-parents and other studies find the reverse.

How can these studies with such a basic design find opposite results? One large problem with this approach is that little work is done to find out who exactly is making up these groups of parents and non-parents. Focusing on the non-parents, only 15% of adults do not have children, making them a small comparison group. More importantly, their reasons for doing so may differ greatly. Young adults may not have children when they take part in the research, but plan to have children later. Older adults may not have children because they were not able to do so, or they may have consciously made the choice to not have children. Imagine comparing a married 48-year old with three children to a married 48 year-old with no children who spent years and hard earned dollars fighting infertility and wishing to be a parent? Who do you think is happier? Now imagine that the non-parent comparison is a 48 year-old who loves to travel, lives all over the globe and chose not to have children because they wouldn’t fit a globetrotting lifestyle. Who do you think is happier? In one study, mothers were no happier than women who chose not to have children, but were significantly happier than infertile women (Callan, 1987). Choice plays an important role on the other side of the table as well—some people become parents by choice while others find themselves in the unexpected position of being a parent when they hadn’t intended it. How might choice affect happiness among these different groups?

Are people happier after they have children than they were before they were parents?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Parenthood: Trial or Tribulation?

This is the first post in a four-part series on parenthood and happiness.

On New Years Day I celebrated not only the start of a new year, but a new phase in my life. A few (long) hours after midnight I became a parent, and my life was irrevocably changed. In the journey to parenthood I knew one thing to be true—that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Would becoming a parent bring me joy, love, and gratitude greater than I had previously known? Would I find myself anxious, worried, depressed, and dreaming of my former life? Or, as I suspected, would I find myself experiencing intense moments of both?

In my short time as a parent I have experienced great joy, love and gratitude as well as intense worry, and sometimes even sadness. Happily, as I sit here typing up this post with my two and a half month old swaddled next to me on the couch, eyeing me trustingly as she falls in and out of sleep, I can say that the balance tends to weigh strongly on the side of joy. But in those moments where I don’t have the luxury to type up this post because I’m tending to a crying child, or changing a dirty diaper, I dream of the freedom of my former life and the balance is just a bit more evenly weighted.

And the one thing I know with certainty is that I still have no clue what exactly I’ve gotten myself into. While my days often stretch out in front of me with the sameness that comes from having an infant with simple needs, I also know that she is growing and changing at a rapid pace. Each week we are in uncharted territory as she learns to smile, sit, and eventually walk, talk and push back as she becomes her own independent person.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

I'm Using the New Statistics

Do you remember your elementary school science project? Mine was about ant poison. I mixed borax with sugar and put that mixture outside our house during the summer in a carefully crafted/aesthetically pleasing "ant motel." My prediction, I think, was that we would kill ants just like in the conventional ant killing brands, but we'd do so in an aesthetically pleasing way. In retrospect, not sure I was cut out for science back then.

Anyway, from what I remember about that process, there was a clear study design and articulation of a hypothesis--a prediction about what I expected to happen in the experiment. Years later, I would learn more about hypothesis testing in undergraduate and graduate statistical courses on my way to a social psychology PhD. For that degree, Null Hypothesis Significance Testing (NHST) would be my go-to method of inferential statistics.

In NHST, I have come to an unhealthy worship of p-values--the statistic expressing the probability of the data showing the observed relationship between variables X and Y, if the null hypothesis (of no relationship) were true. If p < .05 rejoice! If p < .10 claim emerging trends/marginal significance and be cautiously optimistic. If p > .10 find another profession. By NHST standards, an experiment fails or succeeds based solely on this one statistic.

When the Association of Psychological Science proposed using an alternative statistical approach--something called the New Statistics (actually not new, been around for decades)--I was intrigued about the possibility of living an academic life beyond the tyranny of p < .05.