Remember the last time Baby woke you up at 1 a.m.?
Then again at 3 a.m.?
And again at 6 a.m.?
We’ll be the first to admit it–at times it’s hard to remember what the good things are about having kids (especially when stories like this continue to remind us how expensive it is to have kids in the first place).
Still, despite all that, there’s something about having kids that just makes us–what’s the word?
Turns out, we’re not making that up to make ourselves feel better. A whole slew of new research points to the fact that, overall, parents tend to be happier, or or at least as happy, as non-parents (we talked about two of the studies here).
With all the giddiness going on, we wanted to know more. So we called up Katherine Nelson, doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside and lead author on the newest study linking parenting and happiness, “In Defense of Parenthood.”
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Here’s what she had to say about having kids, our happiness levels and how our station in life (read: career, marital status and financial situation) affects our parenting.
There have been a bunch of studies in the news recently that link having children to happiness. What were your studies about, specifically?
We actually did three studies overall. The first one looked at whether parents were happier or less happy than their non-parent counterpoints in general; the second tracked emotions of participants at different times throughout the day; and the third looked specifically at the time that parents were spending with their kids versus the other activities in their day, and how they felt at those different times.
That’s so interesting. So what came out of the first study?
For the first part we looked at a sample of people from the United States, and we were able to compare parents to non-parents on two levels–both in happiness and meaning of life. Overall, parents in the study reported more happiness, satisfaction and meaning in their lives than non-parents.
After that we looked at the link between parenthood and happiness according to different lifestyle factors, like marital status, age and gender. One interesting thing we found here was that although in general parents were happier than non-parents, within all parents who participated, the overall level of happiness was specific to sub-groups.
So overall parents reported being more happy than non-parents, but within the parents-only contingency, certain parents were happier than others?
Exactly. In particular, fathers reported more happiness than men without children, but this wasn’t similar for moms. It’s not that moms were less happy, it’s just that they weren’t more happy than non-moms.
We also found that young parents (defined as 17- to 25-year-olds) were less happy than young people without children. Middle-aged parents (as defined as 26- to 62-year-olds) were happier than people without children and there was no difference in the 63-year-old and older contingency of parents.
Could career and monetary issues be a cause for the younger parents showing less happiness?
While we didn’t specifically test for that in this study, so I couldn’t say for sure, I think money and career issues are a definite possibility for why younger parents aren’t as happy. Younger people haven’t had the time to develop a career; they might be more likely to be single. Also, younger people are more likely to have younger children, which could be another determining factor.
On average, respondents with children reported more positive emotions and a stronger sense of purpose in life than people without children.
How did marital status factor in?
We did test for marital status differences as well. We found no difference between married parents and non-parents, but single parents reported less happiness than single people without children.
That makes sense, since single parenting can obviously be stressful. What were the findings from the second part of the study?
The second study tracked parents and non-parents emotions throughout the day. We gave them pagers and beeped them periodically throughout the day, asking what they were doing and how they felt in that particular moment. On average, respondents who had children reported more positive emotions and a stronger sense of purpose in life than people without children. In the second study we weren’t able to disentangle whether or not the respondents were with their children when they responded with the positive emotions, but we did do that in the third study.
What did you find?
The third part of this study specifically looked at the emotions of parents during the times they were with their children compared to participating in other activities in the day. We had the parents keep a diary at night and track their activities throughout the day, and how they felt performing those activities, and parents reported more meaning and positive mentions during the times when they were taking care of their children than during any other activity.
It would make sense that they probably felt a stronger purpose during those times as well, right?
Actually, all three studies assessed meaning in life. In study one we asked how often the respondents think about meaning in life. In the second and third it was how much meaning they were feeling at that particular moment. Across all three studies, parents reported more meaning in life throughout the days, and more so when they were with their children. And that finding was consistent for all types of parents. So even the young parents, and the single parents who might be reporting less happiness overall, they were all still reporting more meaning in life.
So having kids is the secret to living a happier, more meaningful life?
We’re not suggesting necessarily that having children makes people happier. Maybe it’s that people who have children are, in general, more likely to have better social relationships in the first place. This isn’t necessarily a special, causal relationship.
Are there more studies in the works to determine if having kids actually is a specific cause of happiness?
There absolutely are plans in the works to do follow-up studies to understand more about what types of parents might be more or less happy, because different conditions of parenthood, and different life circumstances, might play significant roles in parent wellbeing.
We got a taste here, but delving more deeply into why parents are more happy is an important question to peruse. It’s a project I’m working on right now. We’re currently in the process of reviewing literature and summarizing everything that’s already been done on the topic, looking for patterns that exist. Hopefully within the next year we’ll have some answers.