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New Research Summary: Can brief online interventions help foster a sense of purpose in fathers?

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We sat down with Dr. James R. Mahalik (Boston College) to talk about his new article published in our flagship journal, The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. Mahalik and colleagues explored the efficacy of brief online interventions in fostering a sense of purpose in fathers. Their studies demonstrate the efficacy of brief online interventions in promoting fathers' sense of purpose, as well as highlight traditional masculine ideologies that are negatively related to fathers' sense of purpose. We encourage you all to check it out!

Mahalik, J. R., Di Bianca, M., & Martin, N. G. (2022). Evaluation of brief online interventions to increase sense of purpose for fathers living in the United States. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. Advance online publication.

What were the research questions you were answering with this study?

We've been impressed with the recent focus in psychology on the importance of experiencing purpose and meaning in one’s life and the large number of positive outcomes connected to experiencing purpose, such as resilience, better engagement in work and school, and better health to name a few. Our first study on fathers and purpose (Mahalik et al., 2020) examined how purpose related to new fathers' health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol use, preventive care) and found that new fathers’ reported sense of purpose fully mediated the relationship between being a parent and healthy living. As such, we were interested in finding ways to try to increase new fathers’ sense of purpose and wanted, in this study, to test whether two brief online interventions could foster purpose. The first intervention was reading about the positive impact that father involvement has on the well-being of children then writing their thoughts about that, and the second intervention was reading the same information but writing responses to prompts that were thought to focus on purpose explicitly.

We also recognized two messages connected to traditional masculine socialization that might get in the way. First, when fathers conform to the masculine norm of “primacy over work,” they may feel uncomfortable dealing with family demands or attending to family matters out of worry for how these responsibilities may affect their job, may not feel confident in their parenting ability, or may feel that work must take priority over family commitments (Mahalik & Morrison, 2006). Second, fathers who conform to the masculine norm of “power over women” may view tasks of everyday parenting (e.g., taking children to doctor, preparing nutritional meals) as examples of “women’s work,” finding less meaning or purpose in their role as a father.

Mahalik, J. R., Di Bianca, M., & Sepulveda, J. (2020). Examining father status and purpose to understand new dad’s healthier lives. Psychology of Men and Masculinities, 21, 570-577.

Mahalik, J. R., & Morrison, J. A. (2006). A cognitive therapy approach to increasing father

involvement by changing restrictive masculine schemas. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 13, 62-70.

What were the main conclusions of your article?

We found that both brief online interventions increased fathers’ sense of purpose in comparison to the control condition, with the purpose reflection prompts specifically increasing fathers experience of meaningfulness and the importance of making a difference in the world beyond oneself. We also found that the more they endorsed the masculine norm of power over women, the less purpose they reported in terms of being goal-oriented and making a difference in the world beyond oneself.

What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?

We were impressed that men’s sense of purpose as fathers appears to be amenable to a relatively brief and simple intervention that focused on having fathers learn about the positive impact they make on their children through their involvement and reflecting on that through brief writing prompts. As such, we think that an array of professionals that have contact with new fathers (e.g., family therapists, pediatricians, primary care physicians, and other health care providers) could explicitly work to support expecting or new fathers to help fathers be aware of their positive impact and involve fathers in health-supportive activities and decision-making by utilizing this kind of psychoeducation and self-reflection. Also, given the findings about men’s conformity to power over women norms, interventions designed specifically for fathers may benefit from more directly addressing how men’s understandings of gender and caretaking shape their sense of purpose.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?

Although these very brief interventions were promising, I think the next steps would be to

develop more extensive psychoeducation content for expecting and new fathers and more

extensive writing prompts to build in reflection and action that promotes involved fathering. It’s exciting to me to think of the potential of offering these interventions in a convenient online format that could promote greater father involvement, purpose, and well-being for the family, generally, and their children, specifically.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

My interest in fathers’ sense of purpose really came from my own experiences of being a father and the sense of purpose, direction, meaning that this provided to me. At the time of being a new dad, I couldn’t exactly put into words what the effect was on me and why it was happening, but I just had a sense that being an involved father was helping me become more of the person I wanted to be or could be. This helped me experience the importance of this new role, and the importance of being an involved father, but I also recognized and experienced all the messages communicated to men that move them away from involvement with their children.

Pictured (from left to right): James R. Mahalik, Ph.D.; Michael Di Bianca, M.A.; and Nicholas Martin, M.A.

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