Last month study results results1 from German researchers on parental well-being (or lack thereof) appeared in news articles around the world. This isn't the first time a study has made waves for supposedly demonstrating that nonparents are happier than parents (see here for more).2 This time, researchers found a headline-grabbing correlation. As CNN3 paraphrased,
According to a recent study, the drop in happiness experienced by parents after the birth of first child was larger than the experience of unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.
Wow! Having a kid is worse for your happiness than losing the person you love the most. They seem to be inferring that creating life, with your life partner, is more traumatic than that partner dying!
The NY Daily News trumpeted the news, too:
Having Kids is Worse for Happiness Than Divorce, Death of a Partner: Study
But all was not as it seemed. CNN noted, later in the article, that the findings were more nuanced:
The authors said they were not looking at what makes parents happy or unhappy -- they were specifically looking at why, although most German couples say they would like to have two children, they end up stopping after one. "On the whole," Myrskyla said, "despite the unhappiness after the first birth of a baby, having up to two children rather increases overall happiness in life."
Wait, so there's unhappiness after the first child, but "up to two children" increases happiness?
Which one is it?
Confusing stories like these on parent unhappiness have been gaining traction in the news media since Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman's 2004 study of 900 working women in Texas. One table in the published study leads the reader to believe that spending time with children makes the study participants only slightly happier than commuting to work, and less contented than watching TV and doing housework. Studies like these correlating happiness with the research subjects’ reports have led Newsweek to quote psychologists who believe parents are "happier grocery shopping and even sleeping than spending time with their kids."4
Critics have noted that the authors of most such studies didn't mean to say that having children causes parent unhappiness, but the headlines are often written that way anyway. Rachel Margolis, coauthor of the study that rippled through the news media last month, confirmed to Greater Good that her research was not intended to measure parent happiness, and added: “We’ve actually found that happiness increases just before you have a child, decreases just after you have your first child, and then comes up to the level you were at before the birth, generally.”
The research of Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph.D and her colleagues on human happiness suggests that the real news is much less inflammatory than meets the eye. Dr. Lyubomirsky has written for Psychology Today on common myths about happiness, and for Time Magazine summarizing her research on parent happiness:5
Our analysis revealed that certain types of parents (e.g., young parents and parents with small children) are particularly unhappy, while other types (e.g., fathers, married parents, and empty nesters) report especially high life satisfaction, happiness, or meaning. In other words, whether or not children go hand in hand with happiness depends on many factors, including our age, marital status, income and social support, as well as whether our children live with us and have difficult temperaments. Whether we ourselves were securely attached to our own parents is even a factor.
For example, in our own research with a large sample of U.S. adults, my team found that, compared to older parents, parents ages 17 to 25 were less satisfied with their lives than their peers without kids. However, all types of parents reported having more meaning in life than did their childless counterparts, suggesting that the rewards of parenting may be more ineffable than the daily highs (or lows). Some might argue that parents are deluding themselves: Having sacrificed time, money, and selfhood to parenting, they persuade themselves that, of course, their children make them happy. To rule out this explanation, we decided to unobtrusively measure parents’ actual day-to-day experiences of parenting. Parents randomly beeped throughout the day reported more positive emotions than nonparents, and parents reported more positive emotions and meaning when they were taking care of their children than when they were doing other activities, like working or eating.
The headline “Parents Report More Positive Emotions Than Non-Parents; Age, Income, Marital Status Are Factors” isn’t quite as catchy. Last year the Center for Economic and Policy Research made much the same conclusions about parent “highs and lows.”6,7 Pew Research surveys suggest that parent happiness is also correlated with how well parents evaluate their own parenting.8
Dr. Lyubomirsky's research also identifies a few more pertinent questions left out of the alarmist reporting on this subject: How do we gauge happiness? How is that different from life satisfaction? And how is happiness connected to the overall meaning we find in our daily lives?
These are the questions to which my clients who are parents often return, and which defy easy summarizing in a research study. They often struggle with their choices, and weigh the impacts of their decisions years later, but the vast majority report some level of fulfillment in the role of parent. That headline isn't as catchy, but it may be more accurate than using correlation-as-causation to create news.
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Andrew Willis Garcés, LPC
Andrew is a counselor in private practice in Austin, TX who specializes in therapy with couples and families.
1Margolis, R., & Myrskyl, M. (2015). Parental well-being surrounding first birth as a determinant of further parity progression. Demography, 1147-1166. doi: 10.1007/s13524-015-0413-2
2Deaton, A., & Stone, A. (2014). Evaluative and hedonic wellbeing among those with and without children at home. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1328-1333. doi:10.1073/pnas.1311600111
3Kahneman, D., & Krueger, A.B. (2006). Developments in the measurement of subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3-24. doi: 10.1257/089533006776526030
4Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: A.A. Knopf.
5Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., English, T., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 3-10. doi: 10.1177/0956797612447798
6Deaton, A., & Stone, A. A., (2013). Grandpa and the Snapper: The Well-Being of the Elderly Who Live with Children, p. 283-300 in, Discoveries in the Economics of Aging, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
7Deaton, A. & Stone, A. A. (2014). Evaluative and hedonic wellbeing among those with and without children at home. PNAS, 1328–33. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311600111