Money, Sleep and Love: What Makes a Happy Parent?

happy mom with her kids in the snow
Parenting with the goal of providing love and secuiity boosts mom and dad's happiness, new research suggests. (Image credit: MNStudio, Shutterstock)

Who is happier: Parents or non-parents?

It's a conundrum that burns hot in the cultural discourse. Are parents made miserable by dirty diapers, long sleepless nights and needy kiddos? Or are they on cloud nine, because of the love and meaning their offspring bring to their lives? Or is it perhaps some mix of the two, as journalist Jennifer Senior argues in the new and much-buzzed-about "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood" (Ecco, 2014)?

Wrong questions.

Social psychologists are moving past the simple yes-or-no question of whether kids make people happy, as studies have failed to find strong differences in happiness between parents and non-parents. The real question, researchers say, is when do kids make parents happy — and when do they not?

"Overall, there's not much difference between parents and non-parents, but when you start to take a more detailed approach, you see some differences emerge," said Katie Nelson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Riverside. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

Which parents are happiest?

Nelson was among the researchers who tackled the parenthood question last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas. She and her colleagues find that becoming a parent at a later age is linked with happiness, as is (unsurprisingly) financial security.

Studies attempting to compare parents and non-parents have variously found that kids make people happier; that kids make people less satisfied with their marriages; that parents are less happy, but lie to themselves about it; and that the difference between parents and non-parents is a wash.

A major challenge to answering the question, Nelson said, is that people who decide to have kids and those who choose not to may be different in the first place — and researchers can't randomly assign some people to have kids and others to stay childfree to see what happens. Extraneous factors might influence happiness as well. For example, by age 45, 86 percent of women and 84 percent of men have kids, making non-parents a minority. These non-parents may face judgment or criticism for not having kids, which could depress their happiness levels.  

In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in January 2013, Nelson and her colleagues found that parents, on average, were just a smidge happier than non-parents. The results held when measured by how people evaluate their lives, how they feel on a day-to-day basis and by what they prefer to do with their time (parents get the most happiness out of caring for their kids, compared with other life activities).

But those happiness differences were small, so the researchers turned to past research to find out what makes the difference between a happy parent and a miserable one. They surveyed studies that compared parents and non-parents, studies that followed non-parents as they became parents, and studies that compared parents' happiness while parenting versus doing other activities.

The results, presented in Austin and published online Feb. 3 in the journal Psychological Bulletin, revealed that a happy marriage, secure bank account and good sleep make for happy moms and dads. Being young, single, having a child with behavioral or developmental problems or being the non-custodial parent are all linked to less parenting happiness — though all parents, even young, single parents, reported more meaning and purpose in their lives compared with people without kids. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

There is no universal age to have children to guarantee perfect happiness, Nelson said, though previous studies have put the point of financial and marital bliss around 30.

"Definitely not having children at 18 would be advisable," Nelson said. "I think anybody who wasn't a psychologist would say that, too."

The goals of good parenting

Beyond demographics, parental happiness may be linked to the goals parents have when caring for their children children. Bonnie Le, a doctoral candidate supervised by psychologist Emily Impett at the University of Toronto, has found in a separate line of work that parents get a joyfulness boost when they interact with their kids with the intention of providing love and security, but feel less happy when parenting from a place of self-consciousness. Trying to convince others that you're a great mom or dad, whether at the grocery store or on social media sites like Pinterest, may be a losing proposition, in other words.

"Parents who engage in self-consciousness goals tend to report perceiving care to be more difficult," Le told Live Science.

Le and her colleagues asked parents to record daily interactions with their children, and to rate which parenting goals they were trying to achieve with each. Besides providing love and security or avoiding embarrassment, the other goals were promoting the child's growth and development, and gaining love and acceptance from the child.

Emotions were slightly more positive when parents tried to win their child's acceptance, and slightly more negative when they tried to promote the child's development, but neither relationship was strong — "something we're going to look at in more detail," Le said. But when trying to provide love and security for children, parents were more likely to feel they met their kids' needs and to feel more positive about the interaction.

Le and her colleagues are still analyzing their data and have not yet published the results. They're now working to understand the context of the interactions: It's possible, for example, that a temper tantrum in the grocery store yields both negative emotions and a desire to avoid embarrassment, rather than the goal of avoiding embarrassment leading directly to bad feelings.

"I wouldn't give advice just yet, but I think it's informative to see that goals are related to well-being when they give care to their children," Le said. "And it's informative for parents to reflect on the relationship between their goals and happiness during caregiving."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.