Be Fruitful, Be Merry and Multiply!

Joy of parenthood brings more happiness than previously thought

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

By the time you've changed your 367th poopy diaper, do you wonder if you would be happier without children, or are you certain that non-parents don't know what they're missing?

The research offers conflicting answers. A number of studies that have been touted in the news over the past several years would lead you to believe having a child was a mistake - you would have been happier without them.

Parents themselves, of course, have generally found this puzzling. They may be more stressed, perhaps. More frantic, sure. But less happy?

These studies claiming parents are more cheerless than their childless friends now have a pretty comprehensive challenger: with a one-two-three punch, a recent paper outlining three studies of parents and non-parents has found the opposite.

Parents, it turns out, may be just as happy, or quite possibly, happier than those who don't have kids.

"If you're thinking you're ready for a baby, go for it!"

The study comes from lead author S. Katherine Nelson, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside, who joined colleagues at the University of British Columbia and at Stanford University to explore the extent of parents' happiness. Called "In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery," it will be appearing in a future issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers conducted three different studies to gain a sense of parents' happiness as compared to others without children. One study looked at overall feelings of happiness in general between parents and non-parents. Another looked at whether parents feel better from one moment to the next than non-parents, and the third investigated whether parents feel more positive feelings taking care of their children than they feel with other daily activities.

The verdict? Parents are pretty darn happy - and no less happy than their friends without kids.

"This series of studies suggest that parents are not nearly the 'miserable creatures' we might expect from recent studies and popular representations," said co-author Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. "If you went to a large dinner party, the parents in the room would be just as happy or happier than the guests without children."

Overall Well-Being of Parents

In the first study, 6,906 US residents ranging in age from 17 to 96 were interviewed using a "values" survey, each person responding in one of four different years: 1982, 1990, 1995 or 1999.

These respondents provided their age, marriage status, gender and how many children they had. Then their survey questions asked them to rate their happiness, life satisfaction and thoughts about meaning in life.

The researchers found in their calculations that in general, parents tend to be happier, more satisfied and find more meaning to consider in life than those who aren't parents. But there were significant differences among the demographic groups.

Fathers and parents aged 26 to 62 were the happiest while young parents and single parents were less happy than their childless counterparts. Mothers were about equally happy as their childless female peers.

"Our findings suggest that if you are older (and presumably more mature) and if you are married (and presumably have more social and financial support), then you're likely to be happier if you have children than your childless peers," said co-author Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at UC Riverside.

Happiness from One Moment to the Next

In the second study, 329 adults aged 18 to 94 carried a pager and filled out a brief response sheet each time they were paged. For a week, they received 5 random pages a day, and they filled out their responses to 19 different emotions.

Again, the researchers found the parents to be the happier responders, though the increase was not dramatic over childless participants. Parents reported a little higher overall well-being, had fewer symptoms of depression and had higher reports of "momentary well-being" than non-parents.

In other words, from one random moment to the next, or picking out random moments during the day, the parents tended to be slightly happier than those who did not have children. They felt more positive emotions and more meaning than non-parents felt.

In the case of this second study, a person's gender, age, race and socioeconomic status did not alter the fact that parents appeared happier, but there were still some differences between men and women. While the fathers outscored their childless male counterparts on all the measurements of well-being, the mothers simply had fewer depression symptoms and just slightly more positive emotions from moment to moment each day than childless women.

A Sense of Meaning While Caring for Children

The third study involve 186 parents, about three quarters of which were women, recruited from British Columbia, Canada and online. The participants were an average age of 36 and had at least one child aged 18 or younger living at home.

This study employed an in-depth interview asking the participant to recall what they had done the previous day, following a specific method to remember each episode. The researchers provided a list of 15 common activities, such as cooking, taking care of children, watching television and so forth, and asked the participants which they were doing during the pre-set time period of the day before.

Again, the participants were asked about what positive feeling they felt and about how they thought about meaning in life. The results of this third study supported the results found in the first two studies. Those who were taking care of children felt more positive emotions and a greater sense of meaning compared to the other activities those same people did during the day.

This study did not include non-parents, so the responses could not be compared to those without children at home and how they may feel doing certain activities. It does, however, provide insights into the activities that bring the most meaning to parents: those activities spent with their children, even if it is simply the day-to-day activities involved with taking care of children.

The researchers noted that each of these studies was limited in the insights they could provide. They are based on recall from the participants, and they also used relatively small sample sizes in the second and third studies. Further, there may be other characteristics of these parents that influence their happiness that was not investigated by the researchers - such as certain characteristics that led them to become parents in the first place.

It is possible that people who are generally more predisposed to be happy also happen to be the people who would choose to have children. Because the researchers did not ask about whether the parents had intended to have children and considering that about half of all children are not planned, it's impossible to know from these studies whether there are certain common characteristics related to happiness that lead people to become parents in the first place.

"Although it is impossible to randomly assign people to become parents, thereby [making it impossible to test whether parenthood causes happiness], we believe the present findings may be revealing to the general public, especially for those planning a family," the authors wrote.

"We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning," Lyubomirsky says. "Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life."

Review Date: 
May 24, 2012