A new study claims that parenting is associated with happiness—but it's largely married, older dads who are reaping the psychological benefits.
The body of evidence has mounted over the past decade: Having children doesn't make people happy. And yet researchers continue to launch new studies, tinker with the variables, shift the demographics, crunch the numbers another time. It's almost as if the previous results are not so much scientifically invalid as they are socially unacceptable.
One study of 909 working moms in Texas found that day-to-day, they "enjoy parenting less than watching TV, shopping, or preparing food." Other studies have "linked parenthood to lower marital satisfaction on average" and a "higher prevalence of depression." Studies have shown that parents register "decreases in life satisfaction in the months after childbirth." In 2009, the Journal of Happiness Studies published a paper announcing that the effect of children on life satisfaction is actually "positive, large and increasing in the number of children"—before retracting the results due to a coding error. In fact, the research showed, the effect of parenting on satisfaction "is small, often negative, and never statistically significant.” Parental happiness researcher Nattavudh Powdthavee says he launched his own study of the matter "to explore why, in spite of the research, he does want to be a parent." (His research found no happiness benefit for having kids).
Now, a group of psychologists from the University of British Columbia, UC Riverside, and Stanford claim to have proven a psychological benefit of parenting. In a press release, they announce that their research shows that "parents are happier than non-parents." The results are more complicated. The study's title, "In Defense of Parenthood," leads to an unexpectedly grim subtitle: "Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery."
Really, the researchers found that "parenthood was associated with greater satisfaction and happiness only among fathers"—mothers aren't happier than childless women. Parents under the age of 26 are actually significantly less happy than their childless peers (satisfaction rates rise for mid-age parents, but by the time parents are in their 60s, they're no longer happier than childless people). Single parents are less happy, too. And on the whole, "married parents did not differ in satisfaction or happiness from married people without children."
The real winner here appears to be married dads, who have plenty to be happy about—the researchers admit that the gender divide "is not unexpected, as the pleasures associated with parenting may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood." If parenting is associated with more joy than misery, dads appear be capitalizing on the "joy" portion of the experience.
Happiness isn't everything. The researchers did find one consistent psychological benefit for parents across age, gender, and marital status—all parents reported "a stronger sense of meaning in life" than did people without kids. But the researchers admit that the data fails to distinguish "the search for meaning" from "the presence of meaning." And studies like this may actually prompt parents to "overestimate their well-being" due, in part, to widespread "beliefs about the desirability of parenting"—beliefs that have been debunked in those previous studies of parental happiness.
It's unclear whether having children gives our lives meaning, or whether kids just satisfy a preset societal idea about how we ought to be extracting meaning from our lives. The trouble with scientific studies like this one is that they take the experiences of individuals and flatten them into society-wide lessons—either having kids makes people happy, or it doesn't. In a press release, the researchers say that they hope "people may find solace" in the study's findings.
Which people, though? The truth is that parenting makes some individuals happy and others miserable. When we try to construct meaning for all people, we don't always consider the well-being of the individual person—it should give us pause that women report locating meaning in their lives through something that does not actually making them happy. "What is the meaning of life?" and "what is the meaning of my life?" are two questions that should not be so easily confused.