Friday, July 9, 2010

Are people less happy when they're parenting?

I'm writing about happiness at The 36-Hour Day and's In the Parenthood this week (click through those links for both posts), inspired by a New York Magazine piece that discussed the results of several different happiness and parenting studies -- all of which showed that being a parent didn't make people happy.

In the New York Magazine article, "All Joy and No Fun," Jennifer Senior writes:
Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction. The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, is at least inclined to view his data in a more positive light: “The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.” As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.

She goes on to make several key points, including:

1. There's a difference between feeling happy and feeling rewarded.
2. In countries with strong support systems, like Scandinavia, parents feel happier.
3. The gulf between our familial fantasies and reality is huge.

All of which makes sense, but you know what? I think being able to consider personal happiness so carefully is a privilege afforded to those for whom the basic necessities -- food, clothing, shelter -- aren't an issue. And I also think that happiness is relative.

Data from the United States General Social Survey shows that women today are less happy now than they were back in 1972. The survey has been asking the same question -- "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?"-- to 1,500 men and women, of all ages, income levels, educational backgrounds, and marital statuses since 1972.

But the survey didn't ask the question of the same women year after year; it surveyed women in the same age groups year after year. So what made people happy (or unhappy) in 1972 may be different from what affects their happiness today. A generation or two ago, it was much more the norm to go straight from your parents' house as a young adult to your husband's house as a newlywed, with parenthood coming a year or so later. Happiness didn't enter into it to the extent it does now, because for many women, parenting was just par for the course.

Today, we have choices -- maybe too many -- about almost everything in our lives, including when and whether to have children. And having children later in life may lead to dissatisfaction among parents simply because, after having established their careers and their finances and themselves before having kids, they know exactly what they're giving up.

I'd argue that, all else being equal, the people who are unhappiest as parents are the ones who were unwilling to believe that having kids is a major lifestyle changes, and that raising them is a lifelong challenge. (Once that diapers-and-bottle stage is over and you've made it past the Terrible Twos and the Terrible Teens, you still get to worry about their well-being for the rest of your life.)

But I also think that you have to choose to be happy as a person. And if you're relying on other people to make you happier -- whether that other person is your spouse or your teen or a new baby -- you're not going to get what you want.

Every year, I make my new resolutions on my birthday instead of on Dec. 31. The big day was earlier this week, and along with losing enough weight to make me feel good about being in my body again (I can't put a number on it, I just know that what I weigh now doesn't feel great) I vowed to make my own happiness.

Now, I'm basically a silver-lining-type person, but I've been feeling unhappy about some parts of my life, and it was getting me down. In true Lylah fashion, though, I wasn't telling anyone that it was -- I expected them to notice, somehow, and change. That doesn't happen. And you know what? Even telling them doesn't necessarily change anything.

But making your own happiness -- that has an immediate effect. I don't just mean boosting your energy levels or making some "me" time (though those things help too, of course). I mean choosing to be happy -- and then finding the happiness that already exists in your life.

In terms of parenthood (and step-parenthood), for me that means cherishing the small moments that make the long grind worthwhile.

Are you happier or less happy now that you've had kids? Or do you think you're as happy as you were before, but in a different way?


Unknown said...

I have five children. I had my first child when I was 26. I'm happier with children than I was without children. Raising kids is undoubtedly difficult and expensive. But the love I have for my kids is something that I can't even find the words for, and that I feel privileged to experience. To each her/his own, but for me, imagining a life without kids seems depressing.

momornot? said...

zach and trish- its refreshing to hear that. I am 26 and my fiance and I are trying to decide if we want children when we are married. Seems like every article I read lately has something to do with the disadvantages of children, and the fact that parents are less happy than non, and the mothers who decide they aren't meant to be a mother so they quit. I've even asked my own mother if she ever wished she didn't have children, and the answer I get is one that leads me to believe she probably has many times. I think we live in a very "ME" focused world, and everything is about whether or not this will make "me" happy and give "me" the best life. I know kids will take away "me" time. I know they will take money, but I am excited to start a family, because I look forward to having traditions and bonds with a family that I had with mine growing up. I hope there are people out there like you who honestly enjoy parenting- and not because you are justifying your expenses- but because it honestly brings you joy. If so- speak up people!