Parents' Love Goes a Long Way

New research links affectionate parents with a happy and flourishing adulthood.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

A new study out of Harvard has found that people who had loving parents in childhood have better lives later on. Parental warmth impacts well-being and health years later.

The study looked at parental warmth in childhood, and then at measures of flourishing in mid-life. The association was clear and consistent: People who recall their parents as warm and loving are flourishing at much higher rates in adulthood. This was true even when the study controlled for socioeconomic and other factors.

What is flourishing and why measure it?

So what is flourishing? The word is used far more often by philosophers than by doctors, but it refers to a good life. Tyler VanderWeele, one of the authors and director of Harvard's Human Flourishing Program, has referred to flourishing as “a state in which all aspects of a person's life are good."

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash
Adults who had loving parents are living happier lives.
Source: Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

When we spoke, I asked him to tell me more. He said, “There are five domains of life that are generally desired by everyone. While there are other dimensions of flourishing, these are the ones that are the consensus across traditions.” He listed happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, good character, and good relationships in the social dimension. When we are flourishing, we have it all.

Why measure flourishing? “For a long time, studies looked at disease or the absence of disease, but increasingly we understand that you can be free of disease and still not be experiencing a sense of thriving,” the paper explained. Flourishing has been previously shown in research to be linked to lower all-cause mortality in adults, and fewer behavioral problems in adolescents.

For the purposes of this study, the authors understood flourishing as “three aspects of well-being, including emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” They measured these aspects broadly, using statements like: “I like most parts of my personality,” “In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live,” and “My community is a source of comfort.” Study participants were defined as flourishing if they showed high levels of well-being on all of the measured scales.

In other words, people who are flourishing live in a good world, among kind people, and have a sense of purpose in their own life. They feel that they can manage, that they are growing and learning, and that they basically like themselves. They have generally positive emotions and have a sense of satisfaction with their life.

Childhood experience and flourishing in adulthood

It’s been established for some time that consistently negative parenting behaviors lead to difficulty for children, both during childhood and later in life. It’s easy to assume that the opposite would be true of more positive parenting behaviors. But does the data bear that out? “We were trying to see if that experience of warmth, affection and love in a child’s life is really important or not,” VanderWeele explained. The study concludes that it is.

“We now have reasonably strong evidence that the experience of parental warmth in childhood, 40-50 years prior, really does shape various aspects of flourishing such as happiness, self-acceptance, social relationships and being more likely to contribute to the community,” he went on. “The effect of having loving, affectionate parents was stronger on these aspects than on a sense of purpose in life. But we see that parental warmth led to more happiness and social acceptance, as well as less depression, anxiety and drug use.”

“The experience of love in childhood is of profound importance, and parental warmth is a key factor,” said VanderWeele.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash
The experience of love in childhood is of profound importance." -Tyler VanderWeele
Source: Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

How does this apply to parents now? The study population was from prior generations.

One limitation of this study was its data source. The researchers looked at a particular population using data from the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), which started in 1995 by surveying adults between 25 and 74 years old. Parental warmth was assessed in a questionnaire in which participants were asked to recall how warm and affectionate their parents were when they were growing up. Questions included: “How much love and affection did your mother/father give you?” Then, in 2004-2006, they were assessed on measures of their flourishing.

The study population was raised before the onset of intensive parenting. Do the findings still apply? How might changes in child-rearing practices alter these findings? Is there such a thing as too much parental warmth? VanderWeele assured me that his team is working on another study slated to come out later this year. They will examine different parenting styles and look at the role of parental warmth, discipline, and the combination thereof on health outcomes.

Parenting and public health

The authors argue the value of targeting parenting to improve population health. They make a call for a new “public health focus on the importance of parenting for outcomes beyond childhood and well into adulthood.” Their hope is that targeting parenting practices may improve population health and well-being.

This study is good news for parents

It will be all too easy for parents to read this article through the lens of the culture of criticism that drives our current epidemic of parenting anxiety. This paper shows a connection between the early experience of loving parents and later having a good life. If we interpret this as one more thing to worry about, one more thing we should do, we will not get the benefit of these findings.

The proof that loving your kids and expressing it affectionately is a key factor in their future well-being is very good news for parents. It can comfort us as parents in the rush of busy lives. Let’s relax and look for times to express the warmth we feel for our children.

For adults who read this and grieve the experience of parents who were not warm, do not be discouraged. Remember your tremendous potential for healing. When experiences are understood and grieved, these burdens are lifted, even late in adulthood. Renewal and joy are paths for all of us, and when we get stuck, a therapist can help.

Facebook Image: Martin Novak/Shutterstock

References

Chen, Ying., Kubzansky, Laura D., VanderWeele, Tyler J. (2019).  Parental warmth and flourishing in mid-life. Social Science & Medicine, Vol 220, pp 65-72.

VanderWeele, Tyler J. On the promotion of human flourishing. (2017) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. Unit. States Am., 114, pp. 8148-8156

 Keyes, C.L. The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. (2002) J. Health Soc. Behav., 43, pp. 207-222

Keyes, C.L. Mental health in adolescence: is America's youth flourishing? (2006) Am. J. Orthopsychiatry, 76, pp. 395-402

Keyes, C.L., Simoes, E. J. To flourish or not: positive mental health and all-cause mortality. (2012) Am. J. Public Health, 102, pp. 2164-2172

World Health OrganizationMental Health, Resilience and Inequalities. (2009) World Health Organization, Geneva

VanderWeele, Tyler J., On the Promotion of Human Flourishing. (2017) PNAS, vol. 114, no. 31