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Do Children Make Us Happy?

• June 19, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: PHIPATBIG/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Everyone agrees: Having children can change a parent’s life in profound ways. But for better or for worse? That’s where the academic literature differs. A new study unites past work and makes the case for a certain style of parenting.

Several months ago, the novelist Zadie Smith wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books on joy, a complicated emotion that lies at the heart of parenting she argued. In the essay, Smith captured the paradox of parenting: Children, so-called “bundles of joy,” can make parents profoundly unhappy.

“Occasionally, the child, too, is a pleasure,” she wrote, “though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize a joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.” Smith went on to write, “Sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?”

In the aftermath of the horrific Newtown school shooting in December, many parents were living Smith’s nightmare. Twenty children were lost. Writing at The Daily Beast the following month, another novelist and critic, Boston University’s William Giraldi, reflected on how children change the equation of happiness for parents: “If you had asked me before my sons were born what makes me happy, I would have given you a catacombed reply about my wife in summer dresses and about my work when it’s kind, about my grandmother when she isn’t rebelching the carcinogenic blarney of Bill O’Reilly, and about Milton when a stanza of Paradise Lost finally clicks. Then the answer was much simpler: Ethan and Aiden and all they do…. You are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And you are fully alive only if your kids are alive.”

While having children can lead to transcendent realizations about the nature of the world and an individual’s place in it, it can also lead to struggle, doubt, anxiety, and even terror.

Smith and Giraldi’s experiences reveal what many parents already know: Having children can change a parent’s life in profound ways. But that fact raises a question. Do the lives of parents change for the better? According to a growing body of research in psychology, the answer may be, well, no. Raising children is again and again associated with unhappiness in parents. This wouldn’t surprise Smith or Giraldi—or any other parent, probably. They all know that while having children can lead to transcendent realizations about the nature of the world and an individual’s place in it, it can also lead to struggle, doubt, anxiety, and even terror. As the social psychologist and mother Sonja Lyubmormisky writes in her new book The Myths of Happiness, “Children are the fount of our greatest joy and the source of our greatest sorrow.”

“Although the evidence is mixed, a number of studies that simply compare the happiness or satisfaction levels of parents and nonparents drawn from all ages and life circumstances find that parents are less happy,” writes Lyubmormisky, who is considered the queen of happiness studies. One study of working Texas mothers found that they experience more negative emotions and less positive ones on a day to day basis than non-parents. This is probably because caring for children involves sacrifice, worry, stress, and exhaustion. “When people are asked how happy they are before and after they bring home their first baby,” Lyubmormisky writes, “the second report is significantly lower than the first.”

No wonder parents are, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, less happy interacting with their children than they are doing more mundane tasks, like exercising, eating, and watching television. In a talk on happiness that he delivered at Harvard in February, Gilbert point blank said that children are “not a source of happiness” for parents. In fact, parental happiness suffers once kids enter the picture. With kids around, parents have to sacrifice their priorities and desires for the sake of the child. But once kids are out of the picture, parents become happier and their marital satisfaction improves. “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome,” Gilbert said at Harvard, “is non-stop smiling.”

For parents, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially as the cost of raising a child extends beyond mental health. In financial terms, raising a child through college costs approximately $1.1 million today says Jonathan Last, author of the new book What To Expect When No One’s Expecting. “To get some perspective,” he notes, “the median price of a home in 2008 was $180,100. It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Having a baby is like buying six houses. Except that they don’t increase in value, you can’t sell them and after 16 years they’ll probably say they hate you.” Children, he points out, “have gone from being a marker of economic success to a barrier to economic success.” Pets, he notes, outnumber children in the United States 4:1. Dogs and cats have become low maintenance stand-ins for children. “To raise a child is to submit to a staggering amount of work, much of which is deeply unpleasant. It would be crazy to have children if they weren’t so damned important.” Indeed, for many would-be parents, having a child is not worth the cost in money or well-being.

A NEW STUDY, HOWEVER, challenges these beliefs and brings us one step closer to understanding the paradox that is parenting. In the study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers found that happiness and parenting do not have to be at odds. A certain style of parenting seems to be associated with well-being gains in mom and dad. Specifically, parent who are “child centric” are actually happier and lead more meaningful lives than other parents.

Child-centric parents prioritize their children’s needs and wants over their own. The hallmark of a child-centric parent is self-sacrifice. The researchers define the child-centric mindset as one in which “parents are motivated to maximize their child’s well-being even at a cost to their own and are willing to prioritize the allocation of their emotional, temporal, financial, and attentional resources to their children rather than themselves.” Child-centric parents would respond affirmatively to statements like “my children are the center of my life” and “the happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness.” Child-centric parents seem to represent an anomaly; their parenting style, if we follow Gilbert’s logic, ought to make them less happy, not more.

The researchers, from the University of British Columbia and the University of Amsterdam, found that the opposite was true. They ran two studies. In the first study, they gave 136 parents, with at least one child, a series of questionnaires to determine where they stacked up on the child-centrism scale, what their well-being levels were, the patterns of their self-sacrificial behavior, and how involved they were in their children’s lives. This study confirmed that child-centrism is significantly correlated with happiness. Parents who put their children at the center of their lives derive more happiness and meaning from parenting than parents who are more hands off.

In a second study, the researchers looked more closely at the link between parenting and well-being. The psychologists asked the participants to recreate the previous day and report how they were feeling and what they were doing during each segment of the day. For instance, the participants were asked to report how they were feeling when they were helping their kids with their homework, walking the dog, going grocery shopping, at work, picking their kids up from school, eating dinner, and so on. From these reports, the researchers were able to isolate the amount of well-being parents specifically derived from being with their kids as opposed to doing other activities.

In this study, the researchers again found that among the 186 parents they surveyed, child-centric parents—regardless of their socioeconomic status, age, gender, or marital status—experienced more positive emotions when they were taking care of their children than when they were doing other things. These parents also experienced less negative emotions when they were taking care of their kids. Child-centric parents also derived more meaning out of their interactions with their kids. When they were not with their kids, these parents experienced less meaning and positive emotions.

If we consider the points made by Lyubomirksy, Gilbert, and Last, this study raises a paradox. Child-centric parents should be less happy than other types of parents since child-centric parents are willing to prioritize their children’s well-being over their own. But they are in fact happier. The authors explain this puzzling phenomenon in terms of the “prosocial investment hypothesis”—the idea that helping other people increases an individual’s well-being. “A growing body of evidence suggests that when we invest in the well-being of others, we experience greater well-being ourselves,” the researchers write.

For instance, several studies have found that volunteering one’s time increases well-being, as does spending money on others rather than on oneself. Adam Grant, a professor of business at Wharton, has found that investing in others not only increases a person’s well-being, but also leads to professional success. “From this perspective,” the researchers write, “the more invested parents are in their children’s well-being—that is, the more ‘child-centric’ parents are—the more happiness and meaning they will derive from parenting.”

If we define happiness in the superficial sense of getting what you want, parents indeed may be less happy than non-parents, and child-centric parents should be less happy than parents who are less involved in their children’s lives. But if true well-being transcends merely getting what you want, parents may have more experience with it than they are getting credit for.

The writer and father of two young girls Mark Tapson captured this point in a recent piece about parenting. “Bringing little ones into this world who depend on you for everything forces you to take life seriously and to clarify your own purpose on earth. Purpose gives your life meaning, and when your life has meaning beyond the narrow and empty confines of aimless, ephemeral self-gratification, then you have a shot at real happiness.”

Emily Esfahani Smith
Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer in New York. She is an editor at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor-in-chief of Acculturated.

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