May 18, 2012
Do Parents Experience Greater Levels of Happiness Than Non-Parents?
Parents know too well the effect children have on the family unit. It's something than non-parents have difficulty relating to. Despite the diapers, tantrums, and spilled milk, parents consistently echo the same sentiment...the ultimate joy comes from parenting. Now, three Universities have released research showing that parents do experience greater levels of happiness and meaning from life than non-parents.
The findings, which contrast sharply with recent scholarship and popular beliefs, suggest that parents are happier caring for children than they are during other daily activities. The research also suggests that the benefits of parenthood appear more consistently in men and older and married parents.
"There is something chemical that happens when you become a parent," says Eric Jabouin, a parent and child psychologist. "There is a specific physiological and psychological reaction that takes place in the body and mind that unleashes something so powerful that it is beyond words and almost impossible to explain to those without children."
To be published in the journal Psychological Science, the findings are among a new wave of research that suggests that parenthood comes with relatively more positives than negatives, despite the added responsibilities. The research also dovetails with emerging evolutionary perspectives that suggest parenting may be a fundamental human need.
"What a child does to its biological parent is not something that can be reproduced in any other setting, not with pets nor any other living thing," Jabouin added. "It is a unique experience that cannot be duplicated." According to Jabouin, evidence comes first-hand from extensive interviews he completed on over 1500 couples before and after they had children. More than 94% of respondents said that the physiological effect and emotional love they feel for the children was completely foreign before the experience. Above all, 96% of respondents stated that the emotional connection, love and happiness they experience with their children, far exceeded any struggle or hardship even during the most difficult years.
“This series of studies suggest that parents are not nearly the ‘miserable creatures’ we might expect from recent studies and popular representations,” says UBC Psychology Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, who co-authored the study with colleagues at the University of California, Riverside and Stanford University. “If you went to a large dinner party, our findings suggest that the parents in the room would be as happy or happier than those guests without children.”
Over three studies, the researchers tested whether parents are happier overall than their childless peers, if parents feel better moment-to-moment than non-parents, and whether parents experience more positive feelings when taking care of children than during their other daily activities. The consistency of their findings, based on data and participants in both the U.S. and Canada, provides strong evidence challenging the notion that children are associated with reduced well-being, the researchers say.
The study identifies age and marital status as factors in parental happiness. “We find that if you are older (and presumably more mature) and if you are married (and presumably have more social and financial support), then you’re likely to be happier if you have children than your childless peers,” says co-author Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside. “This is not true, however, for single parents or very young parents.”
After a careful study of the importance of social competition to human survival, two professors at the University of Missouri-Columbia said that parenting may be one of the most important things we can do for the human race.
"Parenting not only provides for children's basic needs, it also provides a protective context for them to practice and refine the social and intellectual skills they'll need to compete successfully as adults," says David C. Geary, the Middlebush Professor of Psychological Sciences at UMC. "Children who are not provided such opportunities by their parents or other kin are typically at a big disadvantage in today's world."
Children are better served by parents who provide resources for them and facilitate their participation in a wide range of activities, and it is typically this family unit that is the happiest.
Fathers in particular expressed greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning in life than their childless peers. “Interestingly, the greater levels of parental happiness emerged more consistently in fathers than mothers,” says Dunn. “While more research is needed on this topic, it suggests that the pleasures of parenthood may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood,” she says.
The researchers also found that the stresses associated with single parenthood did not wipe out the greater feelings of meaning and reward associated with having children.
“We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning,” Lyubomirsky says. “Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life.”
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.