Having children makes you happier.
That’s the conclusion of a team of university researchers from the U.S. and Canada, who looked at data from thousands of couples and concluded that parents are happier than non-parents.
The study flies “directly in the face of conventional opinion,” said Catholic parenting expert Ray Guarendi.
But he worried that, with its purely naturalistic approach, the study would necessarily miss the point that religious people accept and embrace childrearing as “a gift from God.”
The researchers called their report, which was the result of three separate studies, “In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery.”
They begin by expressing popular opinion on the subject, which is that “recent scholarly and media accounts paint a portrait of unhappy parents who find remarkably little joy in taking care of their children.”
But, when the team actually surveyed the research, they found studies on both sides of the issue, says lead researcher Katherine Nelson of the University of California, Riverside.
As for their own study, which was conducted by scholars at the University of California, Stanford University and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Nelson said, “We all got the same findings: It was a challenge to the popular view that parents were miserable. We found parents were at least as happy and often more happy.”
The largest of the three studies looked at 7,000 Americans, 52% of them women, who had completed the “World Values Survey,” which compares levels of well-being in different countries, between 1982 and 1999. It found that fathers reported higher life satisfaction than childless men; the more children, the more satisfaction. Married mothers were no happier than childless women, but single mothers and parents with preschoolers were less happy than people their own age without children.
However, parents of both genders reported they thought more about the meaning of life than their childless peers.
For the second study, researchers issued pagers to 329 Americans, both parents and non-parents, and required them to record their emotions whenever paged, which occurred five times daily for a week. Parents reported more positive emotions and fewer “depressive” ones. They more often reported that what they were doing at the moment held meaning for them. Both fathers and mothers were happier, but men were more so. Single mothers were no happier than childless women, but they reported less depression.
Most Satisfying Time
The third study asked 186 parents in the Vancouver, Canada, area to keep a diary of a single day. It found that the parents were happier and found more meaning in their lives when they were actively engaged with their children than when they were not.
“Many people regard children as a gift of God and want to be parents. Even when they have a handicapped child they would say, ‘I will take whoever God gives me.’”
Guarendi, a clinical psychologist, predicted that a study of parents with handicapped children would show they were happier than other parents or non-parents. “This also,” he said, “runs counter to the conventional wisdom, but such children teach their parents a lot.”
Parenting gets its bad reputation from a “culture dominated by the self,” Guarendi added. “Children are anti-self.”
The culture also makes parenting harder by undermining the ability of parents to impart discipline and morality, he said. “In my practice, I see many mothers who are depressed because they cannot discipline their children.”
The authors of the study do not claim a cause-effect relationship between children and happiness. They may both be caused by a third factor. Marriage, for example, has been shown by many recent studies to be linked to happiness, as well as to higher income, which is also linked to happiness. Moreover, married people are also far likelier than unmarried people to have children.
Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, said that his organization’s work shows other correlations: People in intact or, to a slightly lesser degree, second marriages value having children more than do divorcees or single parents; and the more frequently people attend religious services, the more they value having their own children. “That’s across all religions around the world,” Fagan told the Register.
Fagan also noted that it was not surprising that fathers were happier with children than mothers, “because the mothers do more of the heavy lifting of parenting in most marriages, even when they are working 40 hours a week, too.”
This is especially true after the first child is born. He cited a 2011 study by W. Bradford Wilcox, “If Momma Ain’t Happy: Explaining Declines in Marital Satisfaction Among New Mothers.” It showed that the satisfaction of new mothers declined because of the loss of intimacy with their husbands and the perceived inequity of the parenting workload.
“For marriages to go on providing satisfaction,” Fagan said, “requires a lot of work from both partners. But God created us for relationships: relationships with him, with our friends, our spouses, our children. When we are in a loving relationship, we are happier. The more relationships we are in, the happier we are.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.