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Do Kids Make Us Happy?

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Recently, parenthood has taken a hit in the media. Multiple studies published in the last few years have concluded that having children decreases our well-being and leads to stress and conflict in the couples’ relationships. (Babble reported on this phenomenom earlier.) But should we believe the research?

Evidence That Kids Reduce Happiness

Take this article from last year’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example. The researchers followed couples for eight years and reported a general downward trend of happiness in the marriage after kids. The worst time for the couples’ relationship was after the birth of their first child, when ninety percent of the participants reported that the quality of their marriage had plunged. Another study used data from 13,000 households and found lower levels of emotional wellbeing and higher rates of depression among parents.

But how can this be? Most of us chose to have a kid (and then maybe chose to have more) and wouldn’t think of doing things differently. Many happiness researchers, however, say that we think kids make us happy because one toothy grin or warm nuzzle from our babies can suddenly erase eight hours of diapers and meal preps. It’s true that those moments have an intense hold on us, even at a chemical level. Love-inducing neurotransmitters like oxytocin are released in those cuddly times. Do they have an amnesic power?

Evidence That They Don’t

A recent study from the University of Glasgow, however, had more positive news for parents. The Glasgow researchers tracked people in 10,000 U.K. households and found that kids do increase life satisfaction. Nor should you stop at one; they found that the biggest boost to life enjoyment came with two or three kids.

Knowing that their findings buck the prevailing wisdom (and most other recent studies), the Glasgow team explains that their data paints a rosier picture of parenthood because they isolated certain variables, like age, sex, and marital status. Married people with middle-class incomes were the ones who reaped the most kid benefits, while unmarried couples or those under extreme financial hardship fared less well. The authors of the study say they think kids improve quality of life when it’s the “right time” for the couple.

But What Is Happiness?

In reconciling all these studies, however, let’s remember that happiness is a slippery term. Yes, if you’re asking about day-to-day fun – eating out, traveling, etc. – then life pre-children is probably going to win. But kids add a level of meaning and purpose to our lives, and generally people tend to feel better when they are emotionally connected to something important. People without kids find meaning in romantic partners, friends, other family members, work, and hobbies. But when kids are in the picture, watching them grow – and feeling our relationships with them grow too – can be hugely satisfying.

Another study released late last year – not about families, but about hard work – speaks to this point. The Journal of Happiness Studies reported that people feel happy when they work hard at something, but they don’t necessarily feel happy in the moment. While they’re struggling with a difficult task or new skill, enjoyment goes down and stress goes up. But those same activities made them feel happy and satisfied when they looked back on their day as a whole. So yes, if you asked a mom while she’s prepping dinner, with one baby on her hip and another one climbing on the dining room table, if she’s feeling over the moon, the answer might be no. But, at the end of the day, ask her what the most important thing in her life is and she’s bound to say her kids.

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