Family Matters

Parents — Especially Dads — Are Happier than their Childless Pals. (Happy Father’s Day.)

Despite a boatload of research linking parenthood with all sorts of negative outcomes, a three-part study finds that parents — and dads, in particular — are decidedly happier than nonparents.

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Consider it an early Father’s Day present, guys: your kids — yes, the ones who wake you up in the middle of the night and demand to be fed three meals a day — are actually making you really happy. Really.

Being a parent, especially a dad, appears to confer greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning than being childless, according to new research to be published in Psychological Science. “If you have a dinner party, are parents at that party happier than non-parents at that dinner party?” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, and the paper’s senior author. “Our analyses show they are happier and think about meaning more in their life.”

Parents were found to be happier during the day when they were involved in caring for their kids than when they were doing unrelated tasks, for example. Especially joyous? Older and married parents.

It bears noting that this is hardly the last word on the subject. Other studies have found exactly the opposite — that parenting is a pain — but the authors of the current paper, from U.C. Riverside, the University of British Columbia and Stanford University, write that “the scientific basis for these claims remains inconclusive.”

One 2004 paper, for instance, concluded that working mothers in Texas preferred watching television or cooking to parenting; other studies have found that moms exercise less and eat worse than women without kids and that being a parent correlates with greater depression and more marital dissatisfaction. As is true in much of academia, however, a lot depends on how you ask the question.

Lyubomirsky’s research slices the data a bit differently, comparing how parents and non-parents stack up in terms of overall well-being. “We are not showing in this paper that having kids makes people happy, but I think this might give people hope that parents are not miserable,” she says.

(MORE: Kid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood)

Lyubomirsky has been baffled by the research suggesting that parents are discontented; in psychology, it’s known as the “parenthood paradox.” Asked about their biggest regret, in fact, people often cite the decision not to have children. Lyubomirsky’s findings lend credence to the perspective that parenting is a fundamental human need. “It doesn’t make sense evolutionarily,” says Lyubomirsky, mom to a 10-year-old, a 13-year-old and a surprise 1-year-old who was not originally part of the plan. “We want people to have children so why would having children make them unhappy?”

Just last year, in honor of Mother’s Day 2011, I wrote a piece entitled In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us. I referenced the raft of research lambasting parenting. But I also noted my own personal reality:

In truth, anyone who’s got a child living at home doesn’t really need someone with a Ph.D. to drive home the point that parents have less free time and less sex, with more exhaustion, frustration and time spent idling in the carpool lane, than the kid-free segment of our society.

So why do we do it? Maybe because despite all the rigors and annoyances, the love between parent and child is unprecedented in its passion. It’s blinding and fierce and feels completely different than romance. I don’t know if scientists have looked into whether parents smile and laugh more than non-parents, but I’ll bet they do. Kids are funny. They are you before you became hardened and wizened, before you experienced sorrow, before you went all cynical on the world.

In three different studies, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues looked closely at happiness levels in parents and non-parents. They assessed moment-to-moment happiness within the two groups and also examined whether parents felt better when they were taking care of their kids, compared with partaking in other daily activities.

Parents fared well on each of the measures. In the first study, researchers looked at nearly 7,000 people in the U.S. and gauged their levels of happiness. Notably, fathers said they had higher levels of positive emotion and meaning in life than men without children. Other studies have shown that moms worry more than dads, which could make the experience of parenting less fun for them. Some studies have found that mothers take more ownership of chores and discipline while fathers spend more time playing with their children, which could also account for variations in happiness. Mothers, for example, were no happier than nonmoms, yet that’s not necessarily a knock against parenting, points out Lyubomirsky; rather, it’s a commentary on the mental health of women without children, who on the whole were a pretty cheerful bunch.

(MORE: Are Mom and Dad’s Problems Keeping Baby Up at Night?)

The study also found that older and married parents — but not single or very young moms and dads — took the most pleasure in parenting. That’s likely not coincidental, as older parents may be in a more financially secure situation than younger ones, and married parents have each other to help with child care duties. Young parents under 26 were less happy than young non-parents, but between the ages of 26 and 62, those with kids reported greater happiness.

In a second study, researchers shed some light on how people view parenthood. Could it be that parents spend so much time and energy raising their children that they’re reluctant to admit they’re not happy? To home in on that question, researchers distributed beepers to 329 people who were beeped randomly five times a day over the course of a week. Each time they were beeped, they were asked: How happy are you? At that very moment — a snapshot in time, if you will — a parent could potentially be dealing with a temper tantrum or having a warm snuggly moment with a toddler. Apparently, snuggly moments outnumbered meltdowns because parents reported more positive emotions than nonparents. The effect was stronger for fathers than for mothers, but mothers still reported fewer depressive symptoms than nonmothers.

But wait a second: what if the snapshots in time from the second study didn’t actually capture parents with their children? The third study, conducted online, addressed this by asking 186 parents who lived with their kids to reconstruct their previous day’s activities, play by play. Findings showed that parents experienced more positive emotion and more meaning when they were taking care of their kids than when they weren’t. “We thought this was really nice,” says Lyubomirsky.

As for reconciling her team’s findings with previous research finding that parents rank caring for their kids on a par with vacuuming? Says Lyubomirsky: “We have been corresponding with the authors to figure this out.”

MORE: In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us