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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Why So Many Studies About Parents And Happiness Are Wrong

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Does having children make you happy?

The question is an emblem of this particular parenting age.

Earlier generations didn't think to ask it. One "happy" result was more parents who just were rather than thinking and analyzing so much. The sad flipside, of course, was too many couples who became parents for the wrong reasons, or were surprised when reality didn't live up to expectations they didn't even realize they had.

This latest generation, on the other hand, asks it constantly. Jennifer Senior caused a stir two years ago when she did so in a New York Magazine cover story titled "Why Parents Hate Parenting." Dozens of economists, psychologists, Harvard professors and Nobel prize winners have spent the past decade asking versions of it, too, quantifying how parents were less happy/more depressed/less satisfied with their marriages than non-parents, particularly when their children were infants and teens. And every time one of these stories or studies came out, the result was a lot of people -- parents and non alike -- loudly proclaiming how HAPPY they were.

Let the shouting begin again.

This time, though, the newly released data appears to find the opposite of what has become conventional wisdom. At the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in San Francisco this past weekend, research was presented questioning the analysis of prior studies. One study in particular, which looks at 130,000 adults, 52,000 of whom are parents, agrees that while happiness levels DO drop when people have children, it is not as sharp a drop as previously thought. And, most importantly, those dips are not, over time, lower than they were in those same individuals before children.

I have not read the study myself, since it has not yet been officially published. What I know is from coverage of the presentation at the conference by co-author Mikko Myrskylä of the Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. Perhaps I am seeing what I'd like, but that glimpse gives me hope that this latest round might answer some of what has rankled when I have covered previous iterations of the "are parents miserable?" argument.

First, most of the studies up to now conclude that parental happiness is a U-shape curve: there's a peak at "married without children", then a drop at "parents of infants", a slight rise when the child reaches the less time consuming elementary school years, followed by a plummet as the teen years begin. Yes, happiness climbs again -- when the kids leave the house.

What this latest seems to account for, though, is the fact that comparing the happiness of new parents to that of their last year as non-parents is a false measure. "Well-being is elevated when people are planning and waiting for the child," Myrskylä told USA Today. So of course it drops when measured against the reality of sleepless nights. If you place the best of something next to the worst of that same thing, you are going to be unhappy.

And second, one hopes, by adjusting for that sharp drop, this data also reflects real life by simultaneously flattening the curve. Yes, it is still a U-shape -- any parent can tell you that infancy is hard, and the teen years are harder. But the assumption I always found misguided was that dismay at certain moments is the same as dismay with the whole shebang.

In parenting, as in any marathon, there are the patches of euphoria, and others where you question your sanity and wish you could quit. But that is not the same as wishing you'd never begun. And oh the satisfaction of the finish line.

In marathons as in parenting, it is BECAUSE of the hard parts, rather than in spite of them, that the entire messy, maddening race is worth running.

Does being a parent make you less happy? Some days. And on others it makes you delirious with joy.