Does having a child make you happy? It depends on when you're asked. During the morning rush out the door? Not so much. During quiet moments of reflection? Deeply.
It's a question reverberating through research circles and playgrounds – and the answer is as much a moving target for scientists as it is for parents themselves.
For years, experts in fields ranging from psychology to economics have been telling us that parents suffer a major happiness gap. There's evidence that mothers rank caring for their children just slightly above housework, for instance, and that parents experience more depression and less happiness in marriage than their child-free peers.
It's not all dreary, however. A new wave of researchers are uncovering evidence that will warm the heart of any exhausted – but happy – parent.
Chris Herbst, a professor at the Arizona State University, says many studies linking kids with unhappiness have drawn the portrait of a parent too broadly – and omitted important variables that help comprise a person's happiness. In a study released earlier this year called "A Bundle of Joy: Does Parenting Really Make Us Miserable?" he and his co-author John Ifcher looked at survey data collected from the 1970s until 2008 and found that over time, American parents are becoming happier than non-parents – mostly because happiness is otherwise on the decline.
A study published this week in a Scandinavian obstetrics journal has found that five years after adopting a child, parents report a high level of happiness. Researchers found that adoptive, biological and in-vitro-fertilization-assisted parents have about the same level of positive attitudes as various other family situations, including couples who failed to conceive after IVF but live with children from previous marriages or other scenarios. The one group that reported a low quality of life: couples who remain childless after trying IVF.
"Perhaps it's not so important how a child enters a couple's life," says Professor Marie Berg, a reproductive and perinatal health specialist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. While Berg and her colleagues are hoping the findings might inspire more financial support for adoption and better follow-up care for IVF couples who fail to conceive, the study also adds to the busy field of parenting and happiness research.
Previous research has ignored or underplayed the importance of how people became parents and other variables that may influence both their decision to have children and their tendency to be happy, Herbst says.
Likewise, another group of researchers, including the University of California's Sonja Lyubomirsky, recently published a study with similar findings, called "In Defence of Parenthood: Children Are Associated With More Joy Than Misery." They found that parents on the whole were happier than non-parents on common measures of happiness: in-the-moment emotions and having a sense of meaning in their life.
So, while researchers scratch away at the question, here's a brief sampling of how they're breaking it down:
Are you happy right now?
One of the common methods of measuring happiness relies on people's memories of the previous day or, more recently, real-time responses to pagers and smartphone apps. A now-famous study in 2004 popularized the technique, and found that working mothers in Texas ranked child care as right up there with commuting as one of the less happy moments in their day.
And what if they were predisposed to feeling unhappy or happy in the first place?
"It could be the case that parents and non-parent differ in ways that are very difficult to capture in standard data survey sets," says Herbst.
"What if parents, because they decided to have a child, maybe they're more altruistic than non-parents, or they see their life as being fundamentally different in terms of its mission than non-parents. Those personality traits, if you will, are correlated with one's happiness."
Are you happy with your life in general?
Researchers often ask study participants whether their life has a sense of meaning or purpose using such questions as: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?" or "How often, if at all, do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?"
"Most people have no trouble answering that question. A lot of parents will say 'Kids give me meaning. They're having a lot of temper tantrums these days or I'm really exhausted but I have a sense of meaning in my life.' Which is a deeper source of satisfaction," says Lyubomirsky.
This may be happening, Herbst suggests, as happiness as a whole is on the slide. He says his finding may not be about parents being happier than non-parents, but because for some reason people with children are one of the few demographic groups that haven't taken a happiness hit over the past few decades.
"Maybe having a child is one of the remaining vestiges of community," he says, adding that everything from rates of volunteerism to feeling connected to one's community is on the decline.
"Perhaps having a child inoculates you."
What else is going on in your life?
In trying to tease out the effect of being a parent on a person's happiness, researchers may have been glossing over a number of other important demographic factors.
"That question 'Are parents happier?' is almost a ridiculous question," says Lyubomirsky. "What are you talking about, parents of adult children? Parents who are single? Poor? Parents who have kids late in life, teenage parents? The question of whether parents are happier than non-parents isn't very compelling in a sense. But what we need to ask is under what circumstances or what characteristics do parents have that might lead them to be happy?"
Married couples also tend to be happier than unmarrieds. So studies that find happiness associated with parenting may actually be "picking up the effect of whether somebody's married, which is positive," says Herbst.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the university with which Chris Herbst is affiliated and did not identify the co-author of his study. This version has been corrected.