Then I had kids, and was at home, struggling with work, so I mined my personal history for stories. My editor told me to add some spice. “People like research,” he told me. He was a great editor, and I learned so much from him years later when I finally took all his advice.
The first time I went wild for research was when I discovered that relationships make you happier than your job. I was shocked that there was hard data to prove it. And I was shocked that you could tell how happy someone would be by their sex life: Three times per week with the same partner. Those people are the happiest.
You don’t need to have good sex. It was really just that people are happy if they can a) love their partner enough to stick with them, and b) prioritize the marriage enough to structure their life carefully to accommodate regular sex.
Then I realized you need to look behind the data to see what it reveals. I do that constantly now. It’s how I figured out that unlimited screen time is fine for kids – but looking behind the studies. And then it made sense to me that kids who play competitive video games do better as adults.
The reason for this is video games require kids to structure their days so they can practice a lot, and they have to be able to find something they love to do so they can devote tons of time to it.
I also found interesting research from a very long-term study of Harvard graduates. The study determined early-on that going to Harvard does not mean you’ll have a happy adult life. But the study did find two factors that correlate to happiness.
If you are friends with your siblings at age 40 you’ll be happier in the second half of your life. This is not because our siblings make our life good, per se. Rather, in order to be friends with siblings you have to love them enough to forgive them when they piss you off.
Harvard also discovered that poor kids who did chores are happier as adults. Rather than asking who qualifies as poor among Harvard graduates, I started having my kids do chores.
And I realized that chores are about predictable family life and routine. Once I understood the impact of chores I was much more willing to bug the kids to do something that I could have more peacefully done myself.
Then I read an article in the New York Times by psychologist Lisa Damour about how important it is to have family dinners. I already knew the dinnertime research, and I knew it wasn’t the great food or conversation that made the meals so important; takeout works fine, and teens are notoriously annoying to talk with at dinner.
Damour has insight:
Regular meals serve as an easily measured proxy for one of the longest-standing and sturdiest determinants of adolescent well-being: authoritative parenting.
In the early 1970s, the psychologist Diana Baumrind identified two essential components of parenting: structure and warmth. Authoritative parents bring both. They hold high standards for behavior while being lovingly engaged with their children. Decades of research have documented that teenagers raised by authoritative parents are the ones most likely to do well at school, enjoy abundant psychological health and stay out of trouble. In contrast, adolescents with authoritarian parents (high on structure, low on warmth), indulgent parents (low on structure, high on warmth) or neglectful parents (low on both) don’t fare nearly so well.
This makes sense to me because I have to exert authority to get the kids to stop what they are doing and eat a meal together. And I have to be caring and warm in order to talk with them about stuff they care about, in a way they want to talk about it. (Recent topics: r/leagueoflegends, and r/politicalhumor.)
Which is all to say that so much research about what works in life is actually about love and structure. All the data in this post is just different ways of showing us that love and structure are what make things good. And I think this is what makes me such a strong advocate for unschooling.
In my mind, unschooling means that I respect my kids enough that I don’t do forced curricula. I believe in their ability to follow their curiosity and always be learning. But I also know that we are happiest when we set goals for ourselves and meet them. So I let them set their own goals, but I create structure so they can meet those goals.
And I remind myself, over and over again, that my own goal is structure + warmth, and I need to let the other stuff go.