How to Be Happy—Despite Parenthood

Children may fulfill dreams and bring life satisfaction, but parenting work is very stressful for most.

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The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert did an experiment with one of his large lecture classes—hundreds of young men and women with widely differing cultural and religious heritages. Gilbert showed the class a picture of a joyously happy baby. The response from nearly everyone in the room: an elongated "oooohhhh!"

Genetically, we are hard-wired to support children. People without such genes, of course, would tend not to reproduce and would soon be weeded out of the gene pool. So what we're left with is a very pro-baby population. Layered onto this tendency is a near-universal cultural bias toward babies and children—they are precious, they represent the best of us, they are the future of mankind. And there is lots of evidence that parenthood creates a sense of life satisfaction and fulfillment.

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All well and good. But from the standpoint of happiness, researchers have found that having children and being a parent has little to do with happiness and a whole lot to do with unhappiness.

"There is not a single positive benefit to parenthood," says Wake Forest University sociologist Robin Simon. Wait a minute. Not one? Oh, Simon says, there is one. "Parents of young kids drink less alcohol than unmarried people," she says. "But that's it."

Simon is finishing up research that looked at numerous positive and negative measures of happiness, according to the impressions of mid-life parents. "You'd think if parenthood would be good, it would be good in mid-life," Simon says. Such people have experienced parenting at different stages of their lives as well as the lives of their kids.

The factors Simon studied include depressive symptoms, generalized anxiety, substance abuse, frequency of positive feelings, personal growth, and feelings about the purpose and meaning of life.

"We do not find a single advantage to having kids," she reports. "And the parents with adult children were reporting more stress" when their kids were grown than when they were younger. Stress, of course, has become a major marker for later-age chronic illnesses.

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"We have these cultural values and beliefs that parenting is essential to happiness," Simon says, "but we find no evidence of that." Men and women seem to be equally unhappy. Being well-educated, which has strong happiness effects in many aspects of people's behavior, doesn't cut it here. Educated people are just as stressed by parenting as other groups.

A lot of social-science research is based on large surveys that span decades and are necessarily connected to earlier cultural models of behavior. It's one of the profession's limitations that should be considered in approaching the roles of human relationships in people's lives and their happiness. Simon's research, for example, is based on information from 1995. If anything, however, she thinks the negative aspects of parenting have only grown stronger during the past 15 years. Certainly, the shifts in family structure, marriage habits, and decisions to have children support her.

"In 1950, only 4 percent of all children were born outside of marriage," says Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "By 2007, in comparison, 39.7 percent of all children were born outside of marriage." And while education doesn't affect the stress level of parenting, it has a strong correlation with whether women decide to get married before having children.

Data collected roughly 10 years ago showed that 93 percent of women with a college degree were married when they gave birth. That percentage dropped to 71 percent of women with some college, 57 percent of women with a high school degree, and 39 percent of women who did not graduate from high school.

In the past, it might have been true that these figures simply reflected an epidemic of teen births, and the likelihood that many young women giving birth were not married. But whereas teens accounted for half of all non-married births in 1970, they represented only 30 percent of such births in 2000. And teen birth rates have continued to fall in recent years.