Am I doomed to be unhappy because I have seven kids?

Last week I read an article which said “having children actually robs you of happiness”.

The research showed that being a parent makes you less happy compared to non-parents. According to the study, parents have more stress, depression, and emotional distress. (Duh.)

From a survey of those researched, taking care of children was at the bottom of a list of pleasures — below shopping, sleeping and talking on the phone. 

Professor Daniel Gilbert, in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” looked at several studies and found that children give adults many things, but an “increase in daily happiness is probably not among them.”

Even worse are the words of Robin Simon in a study of U.S. parents, “I thought at least purpose and meaning in life would be higher for parents, and we find it’s just flat.”

Since reading it I’ve become more aware of my own levels of happiness. Is it true that being a mom of seven makes me less happy (and exponentially so)?

Children definitely produce challenges, interruptions, stressful situations, and ‘emotional distress’ I wouldn’t face if I were childless. Even as I type my 4-year-old tugs on my arm.

And just before writing I finished crying after hours of fighting with my teenage daughter.

Last night I woke up at least three times with my 2-year-old, who was sleeping in my bed because she’s been sick.

Yesterday my 4-year-old drank a whole bottle of $13 liquid Vitamin C spray I JUST bought to help me get over my cold.

My 14-year-old is moody. My 13-year-old won’t do his studies (did I mention I homeschool). My 11-year-old won’t stop criticizing my 8-year-old who keeps using his whining voice, the one that DRIVES ME CRAZY!

These ‘dark moments’ are a normal part of my life. Am I happier because of them? Of course not. 

So don’t they verify the ‘science’ that having children does decrease your level of daily happiness? 

Clearly, I would be happier if I didn’t have to deal with them at all (the children and the issues), right? Wouldn’t I be more fulfilled and less stressed if I could do what I want to do when I want to do it, without the headaches and heartaches of caring for little people (and big people who are emotionally little — aka teenagers)?

Despite the evidence staring me in the face, I think studies like this, and the paradigm initiating them, are flawed because:

  1. Using ‘moments’ to determine happiness levels in two groups of people (parents vs non-parents) is an essentially flawed philosophy. Instead, we need to look at the overall mosaic of happiness levels over a lifetime. Happiness, for both parents and non-parents, fluctuates over time. I’ll explain more about this below. 
  2. Pleasure is NOT the same as happiness. The study references that ‘caring for children is at the bottom of a list of pleasures’. Pleasures do not produce happiness. So what is the study really measuring?
  3. Other people can’t make us happy, even our children. It is our job to create our own happiness, regardless of our circumstances (or number of children).
  4. The study doesn’t separate competent parents from incompetent parents. Our levels of ‘happiness’ as a parent will increase as our skills and ability to parent well improve. And if we don’t learn to parent well and raise capable, caring adults, not only will our ‘daily happiness levels’ decrease, but they will decrease exponentially over time. In this way, the study is right. More on this below.
  5. Purpose and meaning are derived from within, not without. We can’t expect parents to have “higher levels of purpose and meaning” just because they have children. But we can — parents and non-parents alike — find purpose in the most mundane tasks (changing diapers, doing dishes, grocery shopping) if WE provide the meaning from within. Higher levels of purpose and meaning come from living at higher levels of awareness.
  6. ‘Being happy’ is NOT the point of parenting. Just as ‘taking it easy’ and ‘enjoying pleasures’ (shopping, talking on the phone) are not the point of life. Both (parenting and life) are meant to be challenging because challenge is what helps us (and our children and humanity) grow. Growth is the point of parenting and life.

Mosaics, Not Moments, Determine Happiness

The daily moments of chaos and drama in my parenting life are the dark points, the apex of familial chaos that make me say, “See! Studies are right. My life is crazy. And annoying. Parenting is not pleasurable. And I’m miserable because of it!”

Yes, these dark moments have made me wonder why I became a parent, wish my life were different, or wonder how in the world I got to this point (mother of seven).

The problem with using them to determine my ‘levels of happiness’ is that those dark moments are just that — moments

Granted, some of them might last an hour or a week or longer (like fighting with my daughter). But they pass. And then they’re gone. For now.

But I also have moments that are joy-filled, laughter-filled, fun-filled. 

Like when my teenage daughter apologizes for her behavior and verbalizes how she ‘hadn’t processed her emotions well and took them out on me’. 

Or when my 4-year-old tugs on my arm while I write because she wants to tell me “you’re-my-best-mom-in-the-whole-world.”

When we try to define our lives by the dark moments we’re actually doing ourselves a disservice. Life is NOT the dark moments. The dark moments are just a part of life.

Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It, puts it this way:

“The key… is realizing that life isn’t lived in epiphanies and that looking for lessons and the necessity of big life changes [or happiness levels] in dark moments profoundly limits our lives.” 

What’s often not focused on (by researchers or parents) are the rest of the ‘less-dramatic’ moments which create a mosaic of weeks, months, years, and decades. 

What’s often forgotten are those moments of bliss and insight and ‘aha’s’ which can make the days, weeks, and months of suffering worth it — yes, just one little moment. 

What’s often forgotten is the ‘end game’.

The end game for parenting happens when you’re a grandparent. Then — IF you’ve done it right — you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor — children who respect you, grandchildren who adore you, and a legacy of love and learning you’re passing on to the next generation.

This is the problem with studies that measure happiness. They are asking the wrong questions. 

They’re trying to ask the gardener if he’s happier because he planted an apple seed while he’s in the midst of watering, weeding, and toiling under the hot sun.

They’re trying to figure out if parents are more stressed and enjoy fewer daily pleasures than non-parents. 

Duh. Of course they are. Any parent could tell you that.

What the studies aren’t doing is asking whether all that stress and sacrifice are worth it in the end.

Imagine you asked exercisers how happy they are while they’re bench pressing or pushing through that last mile

Would their answer make them seem ‘happier’ than the non-exercisers having their morning coffee and donut? Which group is having more momentary pleasure?

Obviously the non-exercising, donut-eating coffee drinkers. Most of us would rather not endure the pain of exercise but enjoy the ‘pleasure’ of a coffee and donut.

But we shouldn’t be concerned with the pleasure or pain of the moment. We should be concerned with the long-term results.

Parenting is no different. The study is focusing on moments, not results. You can’t ask someone if they are ‘happier’ or ‘unhappier’ because of having children. You have to wait until the work is over. And the problem is, it’s never over.

Pleasure is NOT the Same as Happiness

According to the research, it seems that happiness and pleasure are considered equivalent. They shouldn’t be.

It also seems that pleasure (aka happiness according to the study) is the point of life (whether parent or non-parent). Also not true (which I’ll address below).

Pleasure is defined as “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment” often derived from doing things that ‘feel good or satisfying’. Pleasure is important. We should have pleasures in our life. But they are very different from long-term, lasting happiness. And they are NOT the point of life (something else I’ll address below).

True happiness often comes from doing things that don’t feel good or satisfying (in the moment)— the hard things that require work but produce the results we want. Exercise, eating healthy, studying, working. Some of these may be less pleasurable than their counterparts. But the consequences of their counterparts will ultimately produce unhappiness — obesity, disease, ignorance, poverty.

Yet some of the statements in this study ‘proving’ that parents are less happy than non-parents are ridiculous: 

“From a survey of those researched, taking care of children was at thebottom of a list of pleasures — below shopping, sleeping and talking on the phone.”

Seriously? What results will shopping, sleeping, and talking on the phone bring you in the long run? It’s akin to saying that ‘going to work’ or ‘working out’ or ‘eating healthy’ are at the bottom of a list of pleasures. Of course they are! But pleasures do not produce long-term happiness!

What does produce happiness is doing the hard, ‘unpleasant’ things you don’t really want to do but know you should. It’s the difference between choosing to eat chocolate cake or carrots on a daily basis. Chocolate cake is fine once in a while. But not every day.

Other People Can’t Make Us Happy, Even Our Children

Assuming that parents would be automatically happier than non-parents is flawed thinking based on the belief that other people or circumstances make us happy or unhappy.

This is not true.

No one else can make you happy. We shouldn’t expect our spouse to make us happy, or our friends, or co-workers, our job, or a new house — so why should we expect having a child to make us happy? It’s not realistic.

So then what does make us happy?

According to some scientists, happiness is measured [aka experienced] by three factors:

  • the presence of positive emotions
  • the lack of negative emotions
  • life satisfaction

Many of us assume that it is the outside circumstances and people around us that will produce positive or negative emotions and create a satisfactory life.

But this also is not true. Each of these factors come from within, not without. They are determined by how we process the world around us — the people, circumstances, challenges, and triumphs.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we have control over these three factors. Our levels of positive and negative emotions are directly connected to the way we think about life, not by external people or circumstances.

Put another way, by neuroscientist Richard Davidson, (and referenced in The Book of Joy), happiness comes from four ‘happiness circuits’ in our brain.

  1. our ability to maintain positive states (or emotions)
  2. our ability to recover from negative states (or emotions)
  3. our ability to focus (pay attention) and avoid mind-wandering
  4. our ability to be generous

On this basis, how can you effectively compare daily levels of happiness between parents and non-parents? 

As 1 and 2 illustrate, how happy or unhappy they are is essentially determined by how they maintain and recover positive or negative emotions. (I’ll discuss ‘life satisfaction’ below. Unfortunately, I won’t adequately address focus and generosity in this article, although critically important to creating happiness.)

Whether parent or non-parent, satisfaction with life and daily experiences will generate negative or positive emotions (aka happiness or unhappiness) because of the way the individual processes and interprets their life and experiences — not simply because they have or don’t have children.

Circumstances around me — children or no children, chaos or calm — can be a source of happiness or misery depending on how I think about them. My negative or positive emotions come from my ability to notice (focus) and appreciate the beauty of each moment — or from my ‘ability’ to complain and create a personal hell. 

We are the only ones in control of our personal happiness because we are the only ones with the ability to control our minds and emotions — whether we realize and utilize it or not.

One parent shared this with me:

“There is no question my experience with my kids has been (and continues to be) toward the pinnacle end of my happiness in life. I am delighted by all of creation and have enjoyed wonderful experiences in my life (I’m 55), but few come even close to the joy of parenting. And now I have grandkids! Your message is right on: happiness is more about what you bring to life and how you respond to it (including the difficulties, of which it is chock full) than it is about waiting for happiness to come floating in on a cloud regardless where your heart and thoughts and attitudes and beliefs are.”

Our Ability to Parent Well Affects Our Overall Parental Satisfaction

Levels of ‘happiness’ will fluctuate over time. Happiness is not static. Neither is anything else in life.

As mentioned above, along with the way we interpret our circumstances to generate positive or negative emotions, we can also increase our levels of happiness by increasing our ‘life satisfaction’. 

Choosing the right life vocation helps us find satisfaction — as does doing that vocation well.

Whether parent or non-parent, if we hate what we do and we suck at it, chances are we won’t be very satisfied with our life. The same is true even if we believe what we’re doing is important (like parenting or saving the planet) but still suck at it.

And what’s more, even as you progress in ability, most ‘great causes’ require years of struggle and ‘dark moments’ before the payoff. Think of William Wilberforce and his fight to end slavery.

So to be satisfied with life, not only do you need to believe in your cause or vocation, you have to become really good at it, and still struggle through (years?) of challenges before achieving the reward.

Perhaps what the research really reveals is the ‘unhappiness’ of parents is an increase in ‘dark moments’ and challenges during the child-raising years, while non-parents maintain their previous levels of ‘pleasure’?

But what happens in the later years? Who will be happier then, if anyone? Parents or non-parents?

Assuming that both parents and non-parents start with the same levels of happiness before parents have children (which is unlikely since people vary so greatly, but let’s pretend for a moment), isn’t it likely that parents would experience decreased levels of daily pleasure and more challenge during their child-raising years?

And IF they’ve done their job well, isn’t it also likely that great parents may experience higher levels of happiness as their children become adults, while parents who struggle may experience higher levels of happiness after their children leave home, but decreased levels as they age and are alone

Is a similar trend true for non-parents? Will they have more ‘bright moments’ in between their 20s to 50s, filled with pleasures, friends, career, and personal pursuits? Will this be followed by ‘dark moments’ of loneliness when they age?

My guess is, in the end, the happiest of all will NOT be parents — only parents who have done their job well and are surrounded by grandchildren and adult children who are their friends and care for them as they age. 

After sending out my newsletter, I received this response via email:

“I’ve never been a parent (perhaps for selfish reasons, or because the timing was never right), but parenting to my mind is the most important, fulfilling aspect of our existence. It completes the cycle of life to pass on one’s knowledge, wisdom, and love to the next generation. If you believe this, how could you be anything but happy to be a parent?

There is far more joy that comes from having children than not. Having never had them, and being on the “senior” side of life, I can attest to the serious void there can be in life without them.”

Parenting is NOT a zero-sum game. You don’t automatically win or lose —  or become happier — just because you have a child (or NOT have a child for that matter). 

Parenting is a skill that can be learned and improved — just like golf or yoga or teaching or diplomacy. Happiness levels are likely to increase when you improve your skills. 

You’re likely to put in years and years of effort, strain, and struggle, only to get the real ‘return on investment’ once your child is an adult… and then only IF you gained the right skills and did your job well.

If you suck and keep sucking at the skill of parenting, well, then, you might never see a return. You’ll never spend your ‘golden years’ with adult children who like and want to be around you. In that scenario, the researchers are right. Having kids makes you unhappier, now and always.

Purpose and Meaning Are Derived From Within

As mentioned before, the study seemed to equate pleasure with happiness. They should not. I will cover that in the next point.

But, says Robin Simon of U.S. parents, “I thought at least purpose and meaning in life would be higher for parents, and we find it’s just flat.”

The assumption is, if not happier for having children, at least parenting provides more meaning to life. At least parents have a purpose for living (and suffering).

But why? Why should purpose and meaning come automatically to parents? This is the same erroneous thinking that expects happiness to come from external people, events, or circumstances — the new car, the prestigious position, the accolades, the right connections, the bigger salary.

This thinking also assumes that negative people, events, or circumstances can cause suffering and suffering equals misery. So the ‘emotional distress’ caused by children would have to lead to unhappiness.

Yet as we covered above, our happiness comes from within and our ability to recover from ‘emotional distress’, maintain positive emotions, pay attention to the moment, and be generous.

So naturally, finding purpose and meaning in life would follow this pattern. 

When we find internal purpose, we can find meaning in even the most ‘unhappy’ of circumstances. 

Viktor Frankl illustrated this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Despite the unhappy conditions of living in a concentration camp, he was able to survive by finding meaning in the suffering.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” — Viktor Frankl

Meaning and purpose are not something anybody can give to you. It’s not something you ‘get’ by having a child. It is not something that exists outside of you. 

It comes from within. Suffering is necessary. Misery is optional.

And it’s often the experiences that are the most difficult and require the most struggle that help us discover the greatest purpose and meaning — not in the moment they’re occurring, but as a long-term outcome. More on this below.

Only intentional, purposeful parents will find meaning in raising children, just as only intentional, purposeful non-parents will find meaning in NOT raising children.

What is the Point of Life (And Parenting) Anyway?

But none of this matters, really.

Because we have to start by identifying the purpose of life (and parenting).

IF the point of life is to enjoy as many daily pleasures as possible (as suggested by the study), then obviously we’ll be ‘happier’ when we get to do what we want, when we want, without interruption. 

We will be happier with fewer obstacles, drama, and emotional upset. We will be happier with more conveniences and comforts. Children are the antithesis of these things. (As I said to my husband yesterday, I hate wasting time and money, but children seem to be designed to do just that. 😉

But if the point (aka purpose) of life is to BECOME someone who contributes instead of consumes, gives instead of takes, and grows instead of stagnates — then this process looks very different from the one above. Instead of a focus on daily pleasures, this process requires daily effort, strain, and struggle. 

This process is only done by overcoming obstacles, triumphing over the self, and developing mental, emotional, and spiritual ‘muscles’.

This process only occurs when we challenge ourselves to pursue a vision bigger than we are. It comes from doing the hard work toward a worthy goal. It comes through personal growth.

Did you catch that? It’s only done by growing. Growth is never easy or comfortable. It’s often not pleasurable. But it is the thing that produces real happiness. And it is the purpose of life. All life is meant to grow, not die.

Growth is also the point of parenting. Not only do you become the gardener of the next generation of leaders and change-agents — a cultivator of the planet’s future — children become your own forced personal development plan. Signing up for having kids means you’re signing up for the pain and discomfort of personal growth.

Every time you’re confronted with a person (or child) that rubs you wrong, pushes your buttons, makes your uncomfortable, anxious, angry or irritated is a chance for growth. A chance to choose joy. A chance to develop patience.

Non-parents have these opportunities. Their day-to-day interactions with co-workers, friends, or significant others become the laboratory for their personal development. But they get the respite of escaping to their own home, room, or bed.

Parents have chosen to intensify their training. It’s ‘easy’ for a monk to get up at 4 am and meditate 4 hours a day (the introvert in me would enjoy that lifestyle). What’s hard is to develop spirituality amidst the chaos of crying and caring that requires 24 hours a day devotion.

This evening we gathered in our bedroom, some on the bed, others on the floor. We read from a classic book and then have a meaningful discussion, each age-appropriate child (aka older than five) sharing thoughtful comments, engaged in the discussion.

A deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction permeates my soul — the significant kind Oogway must feel as he wisely guides his students…

…unpleasantly interrupted by a mad-dash to clean up a diarrhea accident from a sick 5-year-old.

But I remember the wisdom of Oogway.

There are no accidents.

This is parenting. The significance and the disruption. The pleasure and the pain. The triumph and the struggle.

So does being a mother of seven children make me happy and fulfilled?

No. My happiness comes from being an intentional, aware human being on a personal path of growth. My children help me get there.

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