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Making the most of parenthood

The notion that parenthood makes people happier is universal. Many cultures believe that children add meaning and purpose to otherwise less fulfilling lives. The positive correlation between parenting and happiness is, however, now being classified as a myth that is not backed by research.  For many studies, the conclusion is that having children makes people unhappy or at least not happier than childless couples.

This finding is surprising. For one thing, most parents maintain that their children are the greatest source of happiness. Also if it were true that children make us unhappy, most people would opt for the childless alternative. Before defending the notion that parenthood makes people happier, let’s first consider why it may not. Perhaps this may possibly make the recent findings less puzzling.

Of course Powdthavee is not suggesting that parenting is all work and no reward. On the contrary, he acknowledge that there are positive rewards to parenting, but strongly believes that the good times tend to be rare and often brief (1). As a result, parents forget about their own well-being as every waking minute is spent either doing things or worrying about parent-related duties.

Worrying has been shown to be bad for mental health. For parents, however, worrying is especially negative because it’s double sided.  Parents do not simply pre-occupy their time with worrying about the welfare of their children, they also frequently agonise about their abilities as parents.   These downsides are further aggravated by the fact that three quarters of parents’ time, resources, energy and attention is dedicated to their children (2).  

Such hardships are not simply confined to those with young children. Research has found that parents’ level of happiness only increases after the youngest child has left home. So given this hassle and hard work it is easy to see why there is no positive correlation between parenthood and happiness.

Powdthavee argues that parents become happier when their children leave home simply because they are no longer burdened by the stress of parenthood. The reason they have children, despite the knowledge that parenthood is challenging, is because they only focus on the positive experiences. He calls this the ‘focusing illusion’. It is a form of self-delusion in which individuals exaggerate the effects of life-changing events. Thus when people think of children, visions of grumpy, badly behaved and sick children are never brought to mind. Instead, “they tend to conjure up pictures of healthy babies, handsome boys or gorgeous-looking girls who are flawless in every way” (3). Where do such delusions come from? Are we biologically wired to think that children bring happiness or are we simply conforming to social norms when thinking about children?


(1). Powdthavee, N. (2009). Think having children will make you happy? The Psychologist, 22 308-311.

(2). Ramey, G. Do children make you happy? Retrieved 2009-07-18 from:

(3). Powdthavee, N. (2009). Think having children will make you happy? The Psychologist, 22 308-311. Pp 309

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