Happiness is, historically speaking, a fairly new subject. It does therefore not come as a surprise that researchers still struggle with the question of what causes happiness. There is not even much agreement on what happiness is (which is why “A Unified Theory of Happiness” begins with a definition of happiness before diving into West-East wisdom). What is surprising though is how almost all researchers used to agree and accept as fact so readily that parenthood decreases happiness. And the entire science community bought into this fact (?) just as readily.
It is this readiness that made me suspicious. In addition, I personally felt incredibly blessed for my three little Zen masters. What greater gifts are there but love and patience? What better school to cultivate either but in a house full of unruly, creative monkeys? In other words, the avalanche of studies informing me about my misfortune lacked common sense. But of course, my reluctance was based on my own experience, anecdotal evidence, and not on science, that is not until recently. Before I tell you about the newest science, I will share with you why, in my opinion, there was such a readiness to begin with.
I can think of two reasons. One, it was about time to reduce the social pressure of having to produce offspring. A propaganda machine had been propagating what amounts to lies, promising rose gardens for women and couples, while in reality, there were a lot of dirty diapers. Having children is a terrible treatment plan for unhappiness.
Two, parenthood is just about as sexy as being a teacher in current times. There is no money in it. We no longer rely on children as insurance policies in affluent, urban areas. To the contrary. The aforementioned diapers are costly and college tuitions ever so more. Besides, babies rob you off your beauty sleep and give you stretch marks, slight handicaps for movie stars and their seven billion fans.
So, now the newest science of 2012: two huge longitudinal studies conducted in the United States by Herbst and Ifcher* and in Germany/Great Britain by Myrskylä and Margolis** point out systemic problems with the old studies. Herbst et al. find that parents become happier over time while non-parents become unhappier over time. They have found that most people eventually become disenchanted with their families of origin, friends, politics and personal economics. Yet, if one is focused on children instead of only on oneself, so the authors, one is inoculated against such disenchantment. Children, so it seems, make for easy focal points, saving us from drowning in self-pity, narcissism, and social isolation. Of course, non-parents can also learn to focus on something higher than themselves and do so with even greater devotion. The research simply suggests that the average person may find it a bit harder to find a real tiger in her or his life (see Life of Pi; www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unified-theory-happiness/201212/life-pi-the...).
Myrskyla et al. did not compare parents with non-parents, but parents before and after childbirth. Overall they found that parental well-being increases, even though after the birth of a child, there is an initial plunge, especially in the mother. The most interesting part of their study to me was that older, more educated and financially secure parents tend to be happier than their younger, less educated, less financially secure counterparts. Also, the first and second child would cause an increase in well-being, while the third one did not have this effect. The authors conclude that happiness in parents depends on individual characteristics of parents and the number of previous children.
In all, I take away from all studies, a way of life (Zen):
1) Take care of your unhappiness without using children.
2) Everybody needs a focal point outside of oneself. If you don’t have children, go the extra mile to find something that passionately and socially engages you.
3) Do not bite more off than you can swallow. You may think it wonderful to have children or to have that third child, but you have to be ready for them in a variety of ways.
4) Don’t put down parenthood. It’s a joy that grows you up and that grows on you.
5) One more thing (for which I haven’t found a study): Even though you might think you do not have the time or energy for it, take well care of yourself and follow your own bliss. It is so much easier to enjoy your children and surrender your little goals when you are taking care of your big goals. Be your own best parent, whether you have children or not. There is not just one way to be happy; just make sure you are on yours.