The fantasies we may have about having children and the reality of having them are often worlds apart, emotionally speaking. Warm thoughts of cute toddlers give way to sleepless nights and tantrums. Marriages are often strained as parents forget to remember to focus on each other while dealing with school schedules, sick kids, and soccer practice.
While there has been some research suggesting that being a parent is not all moonlight and roses, there are just about as many studies finding that parenting is linked to greater well-being. So which is it? Are parents happier than non-parents, or is it the other way around? A new study set out to try to find a more nuanced answer.
Happiness is not a simple concept, so the authors set out to determine whether parenting is associated with higher or lower satisfaction in a moment-to-moment way and in an overall, life-happiness kind of way. They designed three separate studies. The first looked at data from about 6,900 people who answered questions about general life happiness, like “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”; how happy are you, “taking all things together?”; and, “How often, if at all, do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?”
Single mothers and younger parents were actually less happy than their child-less counterparts.
The second study looked at how being a parent contributes to the happiness we experience moment-to-moment. The researchers gave 329 people pagers, and each time they were paged (which was five times a day for one week), the people recorded the emotions they felt at that particular moment in time, in whatever they happened to be doing. It turned out that parents tended to experience more moment-to-moment positive emotions than non-parents; and like the first study, the connection was more consistent for fathers than for mothers.
It is possible that parents are happier people to begin with – before they have kids – so it is hard to tell whether actually becoming a parent adds extra happiness to one’s life or not. To address this concern, the authors reasoned that if parenthood does bring extra happiness, the immediate act of caring for a child should be associated with greater happiness.
Parents felt more immediate happiness and purpose in life when they were actively engaged in parenting activities than when they were doing other things.
Participants were asked about to describe their feelings during various daily activities (like watching TV, cooking, and taking care of children) during a 24-hour period. They had to rate their experiences of well-being and rank how “happy,” “warm-friendly,” or “enjoying [self]” they felt during each episode. Investigators also asked a broader question, such as whether subjects felt a “sense of meaning and purpose in life” during each activity. Interestingly, the parents felt more immediate happiness and purpose in life when they were actively engaged in parenting activities than when they were doing other things.
There’s no denying that having kids will bring you times of unbelievable joy as well as moments of incredible stress, and, like any other realm of life, focusing and reflecting on the good times can help diminish the rough times. That’s about all any of us can do, but it might make a lot of difference when it comes to our feelings about parenting over the long run.
The study was carried out by a team at the University of California, Riverside, and published in Psychological Science.