How to Be Happy--Despite Parenthood

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.

Cherlin thinks happiness is too narrowly defined as a major goal of life. "Having kids makes you less happy in terms of what you're doing today, yet it's deeply satisfying," he says. "If you ask parents with newborn kids how happy they are with they're marriage, they're less happy. But if you ask them how satisfied they are with their lives, they're deeply satisfied."

If changing family structures are making parenthood more stressful, they also are making life harder on kids. Children from poor, uneducated households where their parents are not married face huge stresses. Toss in high divorce rates for those households where the parents were married, and the toll on children is enormous.

"There is more instability in the American family than in any other country," Cherlin says. "I'm worried that that's bad for children's well-being, and it's not good for parent's well-being, either."

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"Kids who grow up with a lot of family strain are more likely to display higher-risk behaviors," says Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas. Beyond the marital status of their parents, children of parents with low incomes and little education often must cope with households where parents aren't around much, and where the quantity and nutritional quality of their food is unhealthful. "Adultification," a term used by Duke University sociologist Linda Burton and others, describes a world where circumstances force children to assume many responsibilities of adulthood. The results are often stressful and reduce children's current and future happiness.

Happiness is, of course, not the end-all of human existence. As many experts note, achievements often require very hard work that does not by itself produce happiness. This work, however, is essential to creating conditions that produce happy outcomes, and supporters of parenthood argue that this type of linkage is frequently seen.

Gilbert notes, for example, that one of the stressful consequences of parenthood is that people are so committed to raising their children that they freely forego lots of other satisfying life activities. "Children crowd out all the other pleasures" for parents, he says. "You don't have sex as much anymore, you don't go out to the movies, and you don't have other sources of joy."

Given the momentous impact of parenthood on the lives of parents and children alike, experts agree there is an alarming lack of thought and planning before many people decide to become parents. "I think a lot of people aren't aware or don't think about the impact of having a child," Umberson says.

For prospective and existing parents, experts say, planning is essential to remove some of its stresses. Areas that experts emphasize include budgeting for the added expenses of having a child, arranging solid baby sitting and childcare relief, working on maintaining friendships and other social ties, and formally including vacations and other "time off" activities. Parenthood can also be very damaging to romance and intimacy, so it's crucial to protect that part of the relationship.

It's important for couples to think about the implications of becoming parents, to make sure it's the right choice at the right time for them.

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