New dads gain weight. They lose sleep. They sport dad bods. They’re more likely to emotionally eat and less likely to exercise or have sex. This is clearly not the picture of a healthy man, but a new study, published earlier this month in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities, suggests otherwise. When men become dads they feel a greater sense of purpose, which often leads to them making less risky, healthier choices. It’s a start.
Traditionally, men struggle to lift themselves out of mental or physical health problems. Dr. James Mahalik, M.D., lead author on this study, has seen this in his 30 years as a counseling psychologist and professor at Boston College who has spent his career studying psychology, health, and gender. “In some of my early work, we focused on how men who endorsed traditional masculine rules in a rigid way were more depressed or anxious, had poorer relationships and worse social support, drank more and lived less healthy lives generally,” says Mahalik. “We also saw they were less willing to get help for those issues. It was kind of this exquisite dilemma.”
So what is the way out of it? Dr. Mahalik found that fathers — and the change that comes over men during fatherhood — might hold the answer.
The dads in this study, from ages 21 to 40 with kids ages 0 to 5, said they felt a greater sense of purpose in their lives. And men who reported a greater sense of purpose were more likely to keep up with heart-healthy habits and had stronger social support, which is connected to better health outcomes. We asked Mahalik what the implications of this study could be — and what the kids might learn by watching dad.
So what motivates new dads to get healthy?
Something people ask me all the time is how do you get men to change their behaviors? That’s a million-dollar question. We have a lot of information about what tends to make men more at risk for health issues, but then how do you look at opportunities for change?
One of the things I really believe is that the greatest windows for change involve life transitions. Moving to a new place can be a fairly notable transition, for example, and can be a chance to acquire new habits or incorporate new things into your life. I think becoming a parent is also one of those life transitions that opens up a window of making behavioral changes. You’re in this new role. Your life turns upside down. Parenting is a great window to look at things in your life and do things differently now.
Research suggests men tend to live healthier lives when they’re fathers. So, the question we focus on in this study is, why is that? Is there something inherent about becoming a father that leads to healthier behaviors? Or is there something else that happens as a result of becoming a father that is, in fact, responsible for that behavior change?
Can you briefly describe what you did in this study?
We had 211 men fill out a 10- to 15-minute online survey. About half of the men were the fathers of children younger than five years of age, the other half were not parents. We surveyed fathers of younger children because they were closer to the transition to fatherhood than men with older kids. The men indicated their marital status, as well as filled out some basic demographic information. The participants then answered questions about how often they engage in eight different heart healthy behaviors, including eating a low-fat diet, exercising at least 30 minutes a day three times a week, getting an annual doctor’s exam, and so on.
They also filled out multiple-choice questions about social support, as social support is tied to better health outcomes and behaviors. These included questions about their number of close friends and relatives, group memberships, and other social contacts. The survey participants also answered a series of questions relating to their sense of purpose in life. For example, one question was: “How clearly do you understand what makes your life worthwhile?”
What did you ultimately figure out from this survey?
We put all the survey answers into two models. One tested whether fatherhood status directly led to better health behaviors and social support in a way that was partially mediated by purpose, and controlled for marital status. The second model tested whether fatherhood status had no direct path to better health behaviors and social support, and instead those tendencies were entirely driven by purpose.
After all the analysis, our results indicated being a father was only meaningful as a predictor of purpose. And having a stronger sense of purpose significantly predicted whether a man was more likely to adopt health promoting behaviors and have greater social support.
In other words, we found that it wasn’t being a father per se that was associated with healthier living. But fathers were more likely to report experiencing a greater sense of purpose in their lives, which was closely associated with healthier living. So, fathers felt greater purpose, which led to healthier behaviors.
Does a new dad’s healthy habits have bigger impact beyond his own well-being?
We know parents are role models, right? And there’s also research that suggests social norms around health behaviors are very strongly related to a person’s own health behaviors. If I perceive that most men go see the doctor every year, I’m more likely to go myself.
Some of the most powerful influences in terms of social norms are what family members do. If family members are visiting the doctor, eating healthy, prioritizing exercise, putting on sunscreen, and doing things that are healthy, children will see those as more normative and they’ll have that dual influence of social norms and parents as role models that will promote healthier living.
Is your finding backed in other research?
This study supports existing research that fathers tend to live healthier lives and have a greater sense of purpose in their lives. But what this research does differently is more clearly indicates the process by which fatherhood leads to improved health. It’s not being a father itself that necessarily leads one to live a healthier life. It’s when a man experiences a greater sense of purpose that they tend to get healthier. And becoming a father seems to be a really good mechanism or occasion for leading to a greater sense of purpose.
What are the main takeaways from this research for current and soon-to-be fathers?
Men hear a lot of messages about how to be a good father in American society. One message they get a lot is that what’s really important about fathers is that they bring home a paycheck and provide for their families. Providing economic support for your family is a very valuable thing.
But fathers who are also involved in caregiving for their children, who see themselves as role models for their kids, will likely experience that greater sense of purpose, which then leads to a healthier life. By encouraging fathers to be involved with the family, we can encourage them to experience more purpose and then make healthier choices that positively impact the entire family.