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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Beverly Holliday More than 1 year ago

--As the parent of grown children I can look back and say they helped make my life happy as well as helping make it miserable! One thing my husband and I did was try to spend time doing things we enjoyed, a new hobby, fishing, music, whatever you enjoy. The kids will grow up and leave and you need to "have a life" so they can live theirs. I see too many parents so involved in their grown childrens' lives that they can't live their life happily. The children don't know how to cope on their own, we have to let them go. It's not easy and in our case financial issues are a big problem we face until they get on their feet. I hoped by the time they were 21-22 they would have careers but our oldest is still working on it and youngest in college. Thankfully we are still able to work and support them. I know God is in control and leading them where He wants them to be, that brings me happiness!

Brian Doyle More than 1 year ago

--It would probably be a good idea to go to the Scriptures on this. Psalm 127 comes to mind, which includes:   Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him. (reward seems good!)  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth. Blessed man is the man whose quiver is full of them. (I like blessed).

I have yet to meet a mom or dad who has shared that they wish they did not have kids or as many kids. That said, I have met many parents who openly regret that they did not have more children.  A lost culture urges people, including Christ followers, to focus on 'happiness'. On the other hand, God promises reward and blessing if we believe Him and follow His Leading  

Doug Sommer More than 1 year ago

--I like what you said about looking beyond ourselves and becoming the men and women our children need us to be.  As parents, I think we bank too much on parenthood making us happy and that causes us to be too emotional about how we coach and discipline our children.  One parenting expert says we become unhappy when "we try to parent the children we wish we had instead of parenting the children we actually have."  He suggests thinking of your parenting like factory with the purpose of producing good "products" (our kids).   This helps take the emotionalism out of our parenting.