Note to Parents: Believe It or Not, You're Happy

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By Deborah Solomon

It may come as cold comfort to any mother awake for a 3 a.m. feeding -- or trying to get up at 7 a.m. after a 3 a.m. feeding -- but new research shows that being a parent does, in fact, make you happier.

A recent study finds evidence that people with children, particularly younger and multiple children, are happier than their childless peers. This "parental happiness surplus" refutes previous economic research that concluded parenthood decreases well-being, which spawned a cottage industry of blog posts, articles and books recounting how that little bundle of "joy" is actually a Prozac-inducing, marriage-killing remora.

So what changed? Chris M. Herbst, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University, and John Ifcher, an economics professor at Santa Clara University, identified flaws in previous attempts to quantify parental happiness, including failing to assess happiness over time. The study finds strong evidence that parents' happiness increases over time, in large part because people without children become less happy as they age. Apparently jetting off to Paris unencumbered gets old.

In addition, previous attempts to quantify parental happiness may have relied on outdated data and failed to properly assess the factors that go into parental "happiness."

Of course, this isn't to say that parents are on Cloud Nine all the time. The study did find that some parents are unhappier than their childless peers. But the degree of unhappiness changes over time and isn't all that pronounced to begin with.

The paper also found that younger parents -- ages 45 and under -- are happier than their childless peers, particularly those who are engaged in more "intense" parenting of young or multiple children.

It also makes some interesting observations about the power of parenthood on our mental health. Recent literature has tended to conclude that Americans, particularly women, are experiencing an overall decline in happiness, a trend that's not hard to understand given our persistent economic woes. But the paper says parents "are one of the few demographic groups that have not experienced an absolute drop in happiness, and in fact, parents are becoming happier relative to their childless peers."

The authors don't explain this but posit that parenthood might provide some inoculation against "the reduction in social and political trust, the fraying of community ties, rising income inequality, and increasing narcissism."

As a parent myself I can see the truth of most of that statement -- having kids helps create an instant community of parents and friends, not to mention less time to preen in front of the mirror. I do question including income inequality, though. After all, nothing makes a stagnant paycheck more evident than rising grocery bills and tuition costs.

Nevertheless, the study could help shift the discussion away from why parenting sucks to how it's good for you. If nothing else, the paper will provide countless wanna-be grandmothers with another reason to say "I told you so."

(Deborah Solomon is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)


-0- May/18/2012 12:02 GMT