How Should Parents Define Happiness?
Scientists love to study how happy parents are (or aren’t). Year after year, news outlets report on the topic, touting studies that they say either find how unhappy parents are, or how much satisfaction and “positive emotion” children bring to their parents’ lives.
Here are some samples of the findings on this topic – as you’ll see, there’s a wide array of results.
- A 2007 Pew report found children are still vital to adult happiness.
- Fox News describe how “parents report significantly higher levels of depression than non-parents”
- Research in the journal Psychological Science found that overall, "parents (and especially fathers) report relatively higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than do non-parents."
- The Wall Street Journal reports “every additional child makes parents 1.3 percentage points less likely to be ‘very happy’”
Andrew Hess is one of our staff researchers, and he recently attempted to make sense of these findings. His conclusion? “There isn’t really consensus on whether having children make adults happier or not. Researchers differ on how they measure ‘happiness.’”
And with that, he nailed the root cause of the issue. The reason for the disparity lies in how we define happiness.
There’s no doubt about it – parenthood is exhausting. It’s a huge investment of time, money and effort. From the sleep deprivation couples with infants and young children must endure to how a teenager’s backtalk can really work that last nerve, there’s a reason why that happy announcement – “We’re pregnant!” – is nevertheless met with cheers and joy and celebration.
At some level, we understand that, in the end, happiness isn’t measured by the many things most parents give up in order to raise a family. There’s nothing wrong with expensive vacations, dining out, and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. Those things are certainly enjoyable – but they can only give us temporary happiness.
There’s a deeper satisfaction that comes from living your life to the benefit of others, and of serving your children well. There’s a joy that fills the soul when you see your daughter faithfully serving at church or your son’s face lights up after you’ve explained something new and that “aha!” moment strikes. Moments like those make the sacrifices of parenting worth it. This type of transcendent love is what causes us to look beyond ourselves and become the men and women our children need us to be.
So, parents – and I include myself in this exhortation – let’s make sure our definition of happiness lines up with God’s eternal perspective. Let’s see the beauty of humble service and character building. When we do so, we’ll find ourselves in a place of great joy.
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