Parents are miserable. That’s what we’ve heard, right? The so-called “parental happiness gap” claims that while parents might give lip service to the “joys” of having kids, their childless peers are the ones really whooping it up. But new research shows that the gap—if it exists at all—might actually be in favor of moms and dads.
In a recent meta-analysis of more than 100 parenting and well-being studies conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, certain types of parents were found to be very happy indeed. (Middle-aged, married fathers whose kids are out of infancy and toddlerhood were found to be the most satisfied.) And one study from Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business last year found that the happiness of non-parents is actually steadily declining, while parents’ overall happiness remains the same.
Parenting naturally incorporates many of the central tenets of positive psychology, the study of how to increase our subjective well-being, including social connectedness, gratitude, play, a sense of life meaning and giving.
It’s not a competition, of course, nor is it advice to anyone about whether or not to have kids. But we know that, globally, happiness levels are declining. While more and more of the population live prosperously, depression and mental illness are on the rise.
Related: The Secret to Happiness Is Just Love
The latest studies regarding parenthood show that while having kids can certainly be difficult, doing so may offer some protection against what seems to be a shrinking sense of well-being (scientists use the term “subjective well-being” in place of happiness to signify overall life satisfaction as well as a temporary emotional state). Aside from the sleepless nights and college tuition bills, parenting naturally incorporates many of the central tenets of positive psychology, the study of how to increase our subjective well-being, including social connectedness, gratitude, play, a sense of life meaning and giving.
But how can you remember that when you’re doing the grunt work of parenting—changing diapers, taming tantrums or confronting teenage angst? And how do you cultivate those protective factors of parenting if you don’t have kids?
1. Get involved.
Having strong social and familial relationships is the most influential factor in happiness, according to years of positive psychology research. The weakening of community in modern life is what researchers suspect is at the root of lowering levels of subjective well-being in the United States. But kids, besides being new family members themselves, open up their parents to a world of new social connections: teachers, baby sitters, other kids and their parents, and long-lost relatives (and strangers on the street!) who can’t resist a sweet baby cheek. When you have a child, you basically gain a ready-made community that you’d otherwise have to work harder to achieve.
John Ifcher, Ph.D., who is an economics professor at Santa Clara University, authored the previously mentioned 2014 study that found that non-parents’ happiness was steadily decreasing while parents’ happiness remained the same. He says the difference could be attributed to reduced social ties. “We find that while all [study] respondents’ social connectedness decreased, it decreased less for parents than non-parents.” So whether you have kids or not, make an effort to find—and stay active in—a community.
You may dread being “it,” but playing—activities like tag in the yard and Marco Polo in the pool—is another gift that children bestow on parents. Besides being terrific exercise, which is another key component of health and happiness, play makes room in your life for wonder, imagination and curiosity. Playing takes you out of your head and provides a break from adult stresses such as bills, work deadlines and laundry. Play is one of those rare activities in which adults and kids can enter into “flow,” a mental state of complete and enjoyable absorption.
“Sharing is caring,” we tell kids. But sharing is an important part of adult happiness, too. And it’s something that parents do every day. It’s no fun in the short term to sacrifice your morning run to feed the baby or drive a kid to the orthodontist. Giving to others and practicing acts of kindness, however, are proven ways to increase well-being in the long run.
So while non-parents might have to seek out volunteer opportunities, parents have this happiness principle built in, says Katherine Nelson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South and director of its Happy Lab. “Parents are less focused on themselves, and that has been associated with greater well-being,” she says. (But don’t become overly consumed, she warns. Find the sweet spot where you are focused more on your kids than on yourself but where you are not “worrying or obsessing to an extreme degree.”)
4. Take the long view.
When parents go through rough patches such as the terrible twos, others often comfort them by saying “it’s a phase” or “it will pass.” This conventional wisdom is supported by science. Older parents, whose children are more likely to be older themselves, are the happiest. While teenage years are arguably just as difficult as the diaper days, they’re not as all-encompassing for the parent. Teenagers go to high school, do activities and homework, and sometimes hole up in their rooms, and those actions give you breaks that parents of screaming, pre-walking, diaper-wearing children can only wish for. The gist: Don’t sweat the small stuff and remember that things will get better.
5. Find meaning and purpose.
Many adults struggle with “what it all means.” What is our purpose here? How can we contribute to the world? What drives us? Having kids provides an easy answer. We are here to guide and love our children through life. Going to work takes on new meaning when we know we are working for their food, schooling and experiences. This sense of meaning and purpose is great for parents because, without it, happiness and life satisfaction can flounder.
But kids are not the only way to find deep meaning. Whether yours is faith, art, surfing, or making the world a better place in big or small ways, nurture and remind yourself of that purpose and meaning regularly. And parents, thank your kids—even if they’re using your smartphone as a coaster—for all the happiness they unwittingly bring to your life.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.