I’ve been doing a lot of reading about prospect theory lately. This theory is likely become taught in most microeconomics courses over the next 10 to 20 years (things move slowly in the academy). There are a lot of important details in the theory, but one that sticks out in my mind is the idea of reference points.
The idea is that when considering options (prospects) people compare the possibilities to what they have now. What you have now is a reference point and what you might get is a prospect. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see that what you expect about something or someone can be a reference point. This is one of the reasons why expectations are so important.
Having established a reference point, the next interesting piece of the theory is that gains are treated very differently from losses. While gains improve your happiness, the effect is moderate. Losses, on the other hand, cause dramatic reductions in happiness. Estimates show a loss as having almost twice the impact of a gain. So gaining $5 bucks, keeping it for a while, and then losing it is worse than never having it at all.
What does this have to do with helicopter parents and happiness? Think about what your average overbearing parent does to a child’s expectations in life. The child has never experienced failure, has been told they are super, special, and just the bestest at everything. These expectations are going to be impossible to meet once you grow up and get out into the world. This means that something that would be a forgone gain (a minor discomfort) for most of us, becomes a crushing loss for the pampered kid. The impact on the happiness of the child will be dramatic. I haven't met a sheltered kid that seemed happy to me, and this might be part of the explanation.
Trying to make your child happy all the time, might just be making them unhappy in the long run.