Parents Are Happier Than Non-Parents

mother hugging child
Credit: Crazy80frog | Dreamstime

Parents may not be the overtired, overworked and all-around miserable individuals they are sometimes made out to be, suggests new research finding Mom and Dad (particularly fathers) experience greater levels of happiness and meaning from life than non-parents.

"This series of studies suggest that parents are not nearly the 'miserable creatures' we might expect from recent studies and popular representations," study researcher Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, in Canada, said in a statement. "If you went to a large dinner party, our findings suggest that the parents in the room would be as happy or happier than those guests without children."

Even so, Dunn told LiveScience, "We're not saying parents are walking around in this amazing state of bliss either."

Specifically, the research finds that parents are happier when they are caring for children than during other daily activities; across the studies that formed this research, the happiness bump was seen most consistently in fathers and in parents who are older and married. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

"We find that if you are older (and presumably more mature), and if you are married (and presumably have more social and financial support), then you're likely to be happier if you have children than your childless peers," study researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, of University of California, Riverside, said in a statement. "This is not true, however, for single parents or very young parents."

The research, to be published in a forthcoming issue of journal Psychological Science, adds to a mix of data on the lives of parents and their kids. IFor instance, a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2006 found that kids can be depressing, with parents in the study having higher levels of depression than adults without kids; another study, this one published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that even seemingly cheery parents may be hiding something. That study suggested parents tend to oversell how happy their kids make them when faced with the financial reality of parenthood.

In the current research, the researchers conducted three studies to test whether parents are happier overall than their childless peers, if parents feel better moment-to-moment than non-parents, and whether parents experience more positive feelings when taking care of children than during their other daily activities. In one study, they used data from the World Values Survey, encompassing more than 6,900 U.S. adults, about half being female.

Fathers in particular expressed greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning in life than their childless peers.

"Interestingly, the greater levels of parental happiness emerged more consistently in fathers than mothers," Dunn said. "While more research is needed on this topic, it suggests that the pleasures of parenthood may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood."

The researchers also found that the stresses associated with single parenthood did not wipe out the greater feelings of meaning and reward associated with having children.

"We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning," Lyubomirsky said. "Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life."

And happy parents may be the best parents, according to previous research from the Understanding Society survey in the U.K., released in April of 2012, indicating that happy parents make for happier kids.

"Happiness is a central life goal for people around the world and has been associated with numerous positive outcomes for work, relationships, and health," the researchers write in the journal article. "Consequently, one implication of our research is that to the extent that parenthood is associated with happiness, children may benefit as well."

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Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.