Articles


Who's Happy Now?


When my wife and I had our first child in 1998, our life changed dramatically. We were sleep-deprived for a year and often had little energy for each other. With no family within 2,000 miles and few friends with kids, our social life seemed to dry up. Despite the love we had for our baby, some days it appeared to us as if we were less happy than before he was born.

It seemed wrong to feel this way, though, and we didn’t admit it to anybody during the next few years as we added another son and then a daughter. As everybody knows—or so we thought—children bring their parents happiness. Was something wrong with us?

As the growing amount of research on happiness teaches us, however, we weren’t so weird after all. What we didn’t know—what most parents don’t know, it seems—is that parenting doesn’t correlate very well with parents’ “happiness,” as we traditionally understand it. But parenting is still worthwhile. Here’s the evidence.

One large, anonymous, survey of Americans from 2004 showed that if two adults were the same in every way (income, education, religion and so forth) but one had kids while the other did not, the non-parent would be about seven percentage points less likely than the parent to say he or she was “very happy.”

Privately, parents—especially mothers—admit on surveys that they enjoy most things more than they do taking care of their kids. When researchers in one study asked parents to rank activities on a scale of 0 to 6 (where 0 means no positive feelings and 6 means maximum enjoyment), parenting received an average positive-feelings score of 3.86. Activities that outranked childcare in happiness included eating (4.34), shopping (3.95), exercising (4.31), cooking (3.93), praying (4.35) and watching television (4.19).

The main reason that kids dent their parents’ bliss appears to be the effect children have on marriage. Multiple studies show that the quality of a marriage, which is critically important for life satisfaction, falls precipitously after the birth of a couple’s first child. The lowest point for a marriage is—no surprise—when the children are adolescents. On the bright side, marriages tend to get better quickly after this point, and rise in quality all the way through old age.

So why do we keep having kids, besides just the ticking of our biological clocks? Researchers find the reason goes deeper than happiness—to meaning. Having someone who depends on us affects virtually every other decision—from the jobs we take, to the way we behave ourselves in public. When a normal parent of little kids hates his job, he thinks twice before quitting; he watches his language; he thinks about his smoking and drinking patterns. He does all these things because the meaning of his life involves the life of someone else. Meaning in life is not the same thing as “happiness,” and for most of us it is actually more important.

But there actually is one way that parenting does raise happiness: Parents increase the happiness of their children. A 2007 survey conducted by MTV and the Associated Press asked more than a thousand 13- to 24-year-olds what made them happy. The No. 1 response did not follow our adult paranoia at all: It was not hanging out at the mall, playing video games or driving too fast. It was spending time with family. Almost three-quarters of the youthful respondents anonymously reported that their relationship with their parents made them happy.

And herein lies the great irony of parenthood. Parents often talk about the happiness they get from their kids, while kids complain about their parents. But in fact, there is strong evidence that parents make children much happier, while children might make their parents a little less happy, at least in the short run. In parenting, we invest some of their own happiness to create much greater happiness for the next generation.                       

Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, lives with his wife and three children in Syracuse. This essay is adapted from his new book Gross National Happiness (Basic Books).




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