KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

What’s the Measure of Parenting? Happiness vs. Meaning

Posted by Marilee Comfort on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 @ 05:01 PM

The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right claims the United States Declaration of Independence. Despite all of our advances, studies show we are not happier now than in previous eras.  When it comes to parenting, some research shows that parenting doesn’t make one happier.  Two leaders in the parenting field, Kyle and Marsha Pruit, have summarized this view of parenting well.  The “happily-ever-after” family picture is a common dream of many, from all socioeconomic levels and cultures.  Yet studies of families show that the happiness reported by couples drops off as their first child joins the family, and continues to decline through their children’s mid-teenage years.  Although parents still report having kids as incredibly rewarding, juggling the responsibilities of children, their relationship, and daily life can be overwhelming at times.  Along with the joys of raising children, parents may experience lots of new expenses, health issues, questions without answers, uninvited advice, exhaustion, postpartum depression for moms and/or dads, disruptions in intimacy, and less independence and opportunities to socialize. [Read more in Kyle and Marsha Kline Pruett (2009). Partnership Parenting:How Men and Women Parent Differently—Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage, Da Capo Press,Cambridge,MA, pp. 3-5].  

parenting-assessment-toolA relatively new field in psychology, going under the name of Positive Psychology, may be helpful in better understanding parents’ perspective.  One of its leaders, Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, writes,

“It is well established that couples with children have on average lower happiness and life satisfaction than childless couples.  If evolution had to rely on maximizing happiness, the human race would have died out long ago.  So clearly either humans are massively deluded about how much life satisfaction children will bring or else we use some additional metric for choosing to reproduce”

[Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish, Free Press, New York, p. 25].

Positive Psychology proposes that happiness is just one component of well-being.  As a new field, it started with a focus on happiness [Martin Seligman (2002). Authentic Happiness, Free Press, New York], but has moved to a more comprehensive approach that might be referred to as well-being (see above Seligman, Flourish).  Positive Psychology’s larger focus on well-being encompasses: 1) positive emotions and relationships, 2) engagement, 3) a sense of purpose, and 4) a sense of accomplishment.  Using this more comprehensive view, parenting may be seen and experienced very differently.

Parenting: More than Happiness

Though the widely accepted view is that being a parent results in reduced happiness, some past studies have shown conflicting results that suggest deeper investigation is warranted.  For example, though some studies find that parents, as compared to non-parents, experience higher rates of depression or more negative feelings, others find that parents report enhanced life meaning and reward.  Such discrepancies indicated that a deeper look was warranted.  A recent investigation of happiness and well-being presents this more in-depth investigation of parents. Psychologists at the University of California, Riverside, the University of British Columbia and Stanford University joined forces to investigate parents’ experiences in the US and Canada through three studies.  They examined:

1) whether parents are happier overall than their childless peers,

2) if parents feel better moment-to-moment than non-parents, and

3) whether parents experience more positive feelings when taking care of children than during their other daily activities.

These studies collected data using multiple research methods:  1) a national survey of nearly 7,000 US adults on happiness, life satisfaction and life meaning, 2) a survey of over 300 US adults on happiness and positive and negative emotions time-sampled via a pager during a one-week period and 3) a comparison of nearly 200 Canadian parents’ self-reports of emotions and life meaning during a single day of their child care activities versus 15 other daily activities.  

What Did Parents Report?

  • In a large survey sample, parents showed slightly greater life satisfaction, happiness and meaning in life.
  • Parents reported being happier at the moment when taking care of their children than during other daily activities.
  • Fathers, as compared to non-fathers, especially reported more happiness, positive emotions and meaning in life.
  • Older and married parents reported being happier than younger and single parents.

These new studies call into question the commonly held perception that parents are less happy than non-parents.  It also adds further support to the growing concept that parenting increases a sense of life’s meaning and well-being. 

What this research doesn’t include as a factor is the quality of the parenting.  High quality parenting results in a strong parent-child relationship [Comfort, M., Gordon, P.R., English, B., Hacker, K., Hembree, R., Knight, R., & Miller, C. (2010) Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale: KIPS Shows How Parents Grow. Zero to Three Journal, 30(4), 33-39.]  By assessing parenting and using the information to increase quality, we can improve the parenting-child relationship, improving happiness and well-being for both parent and child.

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Tags: Parenting Assessment, measuring parenting, well-being, happiness