RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Contrary to recent scholarship and popular belief, parents experience greater levels of happiness and meaning in life than people without children, according to researchers from the University of California, Riverside, the University of British Columbia and Stanford University. Parents also are happier during the day when they are caring for their children than during their other daily activities, the researchers found in a series of studies conducted in the United States and Canada.
These findings appear in a paper — "In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery" — which will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
"We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning," explained Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside and a leading scholar in positive psychology. "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."
Paper co-authors are S. Katherine Nelson, a doctoral candidate at UCR; Kostadin Kushlev, a doctoral candidate at UBC; Tammy English, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford; and Elizabeth W. Dunn, associate professor of psychology at UBC.
The findings are among a new wave of research that suggests that parenthood comes with relatively more positives, despite the added responsibilities. The study also dovetails with emerging evolutionary perspectives that suggest parenting is a fundamental human need.
Recent popular accounts have painted a portrait of unhappy parents who find little joy in taking care of their children, "but the scientific basis for these claims remains inconclusive," the researchers wrote.
"If you went to a large dinner party, the parents in the room would be just as happy or happier than the guests without children," Dunn said.
The researchers conducted three studies that tested whether parents are happier overall than their childless peers, if parents feel better moment-to-moment than nonparents, and whether parents experience more positive feelings when taking care of children than during their other daily activities.
The consistency of their findings across all three studies "provides strong evidence challenging the widely held perception that children are associated with reduced well-being.
Among the findings:
Parents are happier when taking care of their children than while doing other daily activities.
Fathers in particular expressed greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning in life than their childless peers. This finding requires further study, Dunn noted, adding that "the pleasures of parenthood may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood."
Older and married parents tend to be the happiest. "Our findings suggest 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," Lyubomirsky said. "This is not true, however, for single parents or very young parents."
As Dunn put it, "These findings suggest that parents are not nearly the miserable creatures that we might expect from recent studies and popular representations."
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