Should parents ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning?’

I wrote recently about Alan Krueger’s interesting research on how religion and sports/exercise bring happiness.

An NPR story recently referred to a meta-study of happiness and parenting featured in Newsweek magazine (which claimed that parents have 7% less happiness on average) and highlighted research of Florida State University’s Robin Simon (sociology) asserting that caring for kids brought greater depression and unhappiness, partly because of the childcaring itself and partly because of shriveled social networks that stemmed from parents staying in more (for the latter finding, Simon cites research by Linsbeth Levin at Duke).

Excerpts from NPR story:

“Dr. Simon: (reporting on parents’ self-rated emotions in sample of 13,000 time diary reports): They [parents] definitely experienced more depression. They – people with kids, all parents, that is to say including people with kids who are living at home, young children who are living at home, as well as empty-nest parents, surprisingly, when you combine all kinds of parents in the United States, and ask them, you know, if they experience these serious emotions, what you find is that they report significantly more feelings of depression than people who have never had kids.

MIKE PESCA: [NPR Bryan Project host] Does it correlate to the number of kids, or just having a kid?

Dr. SIMON: Well, we actually didn’t look at the number of kids, though I suspect that it does, because other sociological studies have found that the more kids one has the more feelings of depression.”

Simon goes on to say that some of this depression stems from the fact that parents are on their own and we don’t provide them enough social support and provide enough family-friendly policies for them to reap the full benefits of parenthood, including having access to decent healthcare. And host Mike Pesca describes Dan Gilbert’s work (Harvard, psychology) that asserts that parents are happier sleeping and grocery shopping than childrearing.

Simon goes own to admit that the while parents often report lower short-term happiness from parenting, most feel immense life satisfaction and pride from being parents.

Interestingly, this research doesn’t accord with careful research of hotshot economist Alan Krueger (at Princeton), whose work I discussed in an earlier blog post. He finds childcare giving as the fifth most pleasurable activity (out of 21 asked), where pleasurability (or their U-index) is the percent of 15-minute segments in which stressed/sadness/pain emotions exceeded happiness. Childcare had the 5th LOWEST U-index score. The Krueger research is preferably methodologically since it controls for respondents’ baseline levels of happiness, depression, etc. and thus is able to weed out whether parents, for example, are just more happier people in general. You can read the Krueger study here.

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One response to “Should parents ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning?’

  1. Putting aside the methodological preference for now (although, at the end of the day, it is a preference I take very seriously), it seems like what Dr. Simon is actually reflecting in her study is the increased desire for extended adolescence in the suddenly-adult Millenials. The Newsweek article touches on this briefly, suggesting that the seemingly lowered subjective happiness of parents today is due to their “[experience of] more single and child-free years than previous generations.”

    The desire for immediate gratification is greater than ever: with our daily bombardment of advertisements and marketing strategies, how can we put from our minds our short-term desires? I would suggest that, if the statistics do, in fact, bear out the theory that parents are ‘less happy’ today than parents of the past, it is not because parents of the past were faking it – which is also suggested in the article: “If you admit that kids and parenthood aren’t making you happy, it’s basically blasphemy,” – but because perhaps parents of the past were not so continually assailed by suggestions that their immediate desires ought to outweigh their long-term goals.

    The article sums up that “Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who’ve never had kids.” What should really concern us here, especially if we are trying to more fully understand the implications of subjective happiness on the growth of social capital, is that “a greater sense of purpose and meaning” does not equate to “happiness.”

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