Are parents happier than people without kids? Conventional wisdom would say kids bring parental joy, but in past research, childless people have reported greater well-being.
Now, new studies in the journal Psychological Science find that overall, "parents (and especially fathers) report relatively higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than do non-parents."
Of three studies reported, the largest sample comes from 6,906 individuals collected from 1982 to 1999. It found fathers and parents ages 26 to 62 were happier, but not mothers, young parents and single parents. There were no differences in happiness between moms and women without kids, but young parents and single parents were significantly less happy than childless peers, says co-author Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside.
"The effect is small, but real," says Lyubomirsky. Her book The Myths of Happiness came out this month.
In the second study, researchers paged 329 adults at random times over one week and asked about their feelings. They found greater well-being and more positive emotions among parents. The third study, of 186 parents with at least one child 18 or younger at home, found more positive emotions when they were caring for kids than when they weren't.
"It's ridiculous to compare parents of 1-year-olds to parents of 30-year-olds," Lyubomirsky says. "You have to look at what kind of parent and what other factors are involved."
Research presented at last year's Population Association of America meeting also found parents happier. One study, analyzing data from two nationally representative surveys, said parents weren't as happy as non-parents from 1985 to 1995, but were happier from 1995 to 2008 -- because non-parents' happiness declined. An international study followed people before and after having kids and found happiness rose before a child's birth and right after, then dropped, but not below pre-child levels.
Some researchers disagree.
"Psychologists are perhaps finding different things," says sociologist Robin Simon of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There is no sociological study I'm aware of that shows parents do better than non-parents." One study she did found parents less happy than non-parents. Now, she has worked with others on two large, unpublished studies that also find lower physical and mental health among parents.
"I'm absolutely confident in saying that across these large data sets, parents do not enjoy better mental and physical health than non-parents," she says. "The evidence clearly points in the opposite direction: Parents report lower levels of happiness, higher levels of depressive symptoms and assess their physical health as poorer" than people who never had kids.
In one of those studies of thousands of people worldwide, U.S. parents reported happiness levels significantly lower than non-parents -- and lower than in 21 other countries. "The stress of parenthood is enormous, and it's especially stressful in the United States," Simon says.
Her findings also suggest kids' ages don't matter: "Parents do not do better than non-parents," she says. "It's a cautionary warning: You should know what you're getting into."
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