Miserable no more: new research says parents are happier than non-parents

TORONTO – If you’ve ever felt sorry for frazzled parents trying to keep their kids in line, your pity may be misplaced. New research says parents are happier and experience more meaningful lives than non-parents.

Even more surprising to researchers is the finding that parents enjoyed taking care of their kids more than they enjoyed their other daily activities.

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The research is made up of three studies conducted at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Stanford University and the University of California, Riverside (UCR). The collaborative paper, “In Defense of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery,” will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

Studies 1 and 2 compared parents to non-parents, while Study 3 focused only on parents and their daily activities.

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Study 1 was conducted at UCR, and involved an analysis of almost 7,000 American participants at very broad measures of well-being.

“So [in study 1] we’re not trying to control for the many differences between parents and non-parents, we’re not trying to look at things like working versus non-working,” explains Dunn. “All we’re doing is saying: in this nationally representative sample, parents as a group report higher life satisfaction, greater happiness, and they think about meaning more than people without children.”

The second study at Stanford included 329 participants between 18-94, who were paged at various points throughout their day. They were asked how they were feeling at that particular moment, with no attention paid to whether they were with their children or not.

“What we see in that second study, is that when we just buzz parents and non-parents throughout the day, the parents, on average, are in better moods than the people with no children,” says Dunn.

A key finding in the first two studies is that fathers reported more positive emotion, meaning in life and happiness than their childless peers.

One reason mothers’ happiness may not have measured up to the fathers’ could be “the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood,” suggests Dunn. She hopes to look at the effect of variables such as having two working parents versus one working parent, and how that could play a role in gender differences in future research.

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Another significant result was that younger parents did not exhibit the same benefits from parenthood found in the 26-62 age range.

“For young parents between ages 17-25, they were less satisfied with their lives than their childless counterparts, which I think makes sense because being a really young parent when all your friends are out having their carefree early 20s could be quite difficult,” says Dunn.

One of the three studies also found single parents to be less happy than their single, childless peers. However, Dunn cautions against reading too much into this, as it could be that married parents were more likely to have planned a pregnancy, rather than anything to do with the state of wedlock itself.

Other possible reasons put forth by the authors were that older husbands and wives may be more mature, with established social and financial support.

Finally, in the third study conducted at UBC, parents reported being happier taking care of their children than doing other activities throughout the day.

Participants were asked to think about the preceding day and report everything they did episode by episode, from making breakfast to driving kids to school.

Parents then went through their lists and categorized what they were doing and how they were feeling during the different activities. The checklist included an item called “taking care of children.”

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“We never asked people ‘does parenting make you happy?” said Dunn. “Instead, for example in study 3, we’re just seeing how happy do people feel at different parts in their day, and when they check off ‘childcare,’ they’re saying that they’re happier than when they are checking off other activities.”

While the research results are ripe for further study, Dunn sums it up nicely: “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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