Are parents happier than their childless peers?
For the last five years or so, I've answered that question with a resounding "no." Statistics (not to mention anecdotal evidence) led me to believe that parents tend to be more stressed and less happy.
In some ways, this seems understandable, even obvious. Folks without kids can go to yoga or hang out with friends without having to find a babysitter (or negotiate with a spouse). Childless people don't panic over stranding their kids at school when a meeting runs late, or lay awake at night worrying about how to keep the kids' health insurance, or feel overwhelmed by mountains of laundry and plastic toys and permission slips.
But now three new studies throw a wrench in the previous research. The studies, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, find that parents report higher levels of happiness and positive emotion and have more "thoughts about meaning in life."
Some parents, that is.
Young parents and single parents don't fare as well: Unmarried parents are unhappier than people without kids, as are parents under 26 years old. (Parents over age 63 don't differ from their childless peers.)
Then there's the gender gap. While it's true that parents on average report greater happiness and satisfaction with their lives than their childless peers, this is actually because fathers are driving the averages up. Mothers don't show a big uptick in happiness by having kids. It's really the dads that are happier.
Parenthood, it turns out, is only associated with greater life satisfaction and happiness among fathers.
As a feminist mother, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a tad resentful about this.
Anyone who has looked at the statistics on household division of labor knows that moms typically bear the brunt of the unfun housework that comes with child-rearing, not to mention the logistical backflips of the highly-scheduled childhood.
I'm not saying that men don't do housework, because they do. And, on average, they are doing more than they have in past generations. But every day, mothers are doing housework and caring for family members for nearly four hours, compared to dads' three hours.
What's more, housework in the U.S. is still very gendered: Women do more laundry and dishes and cleaning; men do more yardwork. I know I find gardening on the weekends more fun than battling the dishes in my sink morning, noon and night. So perhaps that extra hour of work, and the different type of work, makes moms less happy than dads.
But my resentment will buy me nothing in the happiness department. Focusing on happiness as a zero-sum game gets us nowhere in our fight for equality.
Here's why. First, we all presumably have the same goals; namely, to raise happy and healthy kids, and to find happiness ourselves. And a happy father is, generally speaking, a good father. We know that positive emotions make us better parents -- when we are feeling good, we are more likely to be better listeners, warmer caregivers and to be more consistent in our discipline.
Second, it is better for our own well-being and the well-being of our children if we are cultivating (and modeling) what Buddhists call mudita rather than cultivating and modeling resentment. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes mudita as "vicarious joy," or "the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being rather than begrudging it." Experiencing another person's happiness vicariously really can bring us great happiness; happiness is very contagious. In fact, happiness generally spreads three degrees, affecting not just our friends, but our friend's friend's friend's.
For example, my own dad is about the happiest father imaginable. He takes my daughters to the dentist, volunteers at their swim meets and takes them out for ice cream once a week. The pride, pleasure and great meaning that he gets from his fathering activities is obvious, contagious and moving. When I watch him with my children, I feel a deep contentment that is hard to come by in other ways.
I'm not suggesting that structural and cultural changes aren't in order to correct the happiness gender gap among parents, or that it is okay if dads' happiness comes at the expense of moms'. I am suggesting that this Father's Day, we should celebrate the fact that fathers tend to be happier than their childless peers, as this bodes well for everyone, not the least of whom are mothers and children.
Maybe your happiness on Father's Day will come from a moment of reflection, as a dad, about the ways parenting is satisfying. Or, maybe your happiness on Sunday will come vicariously, through the fathers in your life. Either way, Happy Father's Day.
Fathers: What is it about being a dad brings you the most happiness and life satisfaction?
Mothers and others: How do you derive vicarious joy from watching the happy dads in your life?
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.