Levels of life satisfaction impact an individual’s physical and mental health, with unhappy individuals tending to be less energetic, creative, and depressed, and more likely to call into work sick and to require counseling. For decades, social science research suggested that parents in the United States were unhappier than their child-free peers. This “parental happiness gap” manifested itself in parents of all ages, experience levels, marital status and incomes.
A 2011 paper by Arizona State University and Santa Clara University, “A Bundle of Joy: Does Parenting Really Make Us Miserable?” challenges the validity of this conventional view. The researchers analyzed data from two national surveys of happiness and life satisfaction (the General Social Survey (GSS) and DDB Needham Life Style Survey (LSS)) administered between 1972 and 2008.
The research paper’s findings include:
- While non-parent adults report greater levels of happiness than parents overall, the difference is relatively minor. In contrast, the “unmarried life satisfaction gap” and the “bottom-top income quartile life satisfaction” are, respectively, five times and two times wider than that of the parental life satisfaction gap. In other words, one’s income and marital status exert a far greater impact on one’s feelings of life satisfaction than one’s parental status.
- Both the GSS and LSS surveys show a statistically significant increase in reported levels of parental well-being between 1995 and 2008 when compared to 1974-1994 levels. The happiness levels of non-parents have remained relatively constant over time.
- “A parental happiness surplus is particularly evident for parents who are engaged in more ‘intense’ parenting, that is, for parents with younger and more children.” As the ages of children rise, levels of reported happiness and satisfaction steadily decline.
The authors suggest the increase in parental satisfaction over time may be the result of parental immersion in extended civic and social associations (schools, parent networks), which mitigate feelings of alienation and narcissism more pervasive in other demographic groups. “This evidence strongly suggests that parents have not experienced the growing social disconnectedness and economic insecurity to the same extent as non-parents,” the researchers write.
Tags: children, parenting, mental health