Why men with kids are happier

Having children leads to a million hassles, but new research says it still makes men happy.

Many men are a little ambivalent, to say the least, about fatherhood.

In the pros column having babies means we pass on our genes, which is one of the main points of being here, after all.

In the cons column there’s (deep breath) the broken nights, much reduced social life, endless expense, moribund sex life, nappy changing and so on.

But before we get too down on daddyhood, it’s worth noting that new research claims men with kids are happier than their child-free counterparts. So is fatherhood good for us or not? We look at the evidence.

Men without kids are miserable

What the new research actually says is that men without children are likely to be pretty sad about it, and - perhaps surprisingly - even sadder than their childless female equivalents.

The research, presented this week at the British Sociological Association annual conference, found that men are almost as likely to want children as women. Nearly 60% of male respondents said they wanted children, while 63% of female respondents did.

And if they don’t have them, men are more likely than women to experience isolation, depression and anger. Ten per cent more childless men experience depression, for example, than childless women.

“My work shows that there was a similar level of desire for parenthood among childless men and women in the survey, and that men had higher levels of anger, depression, sadness, jealousy and isolation than women and similar levels of yearning,” says Robin Hadley, of Keele University, who conducted the research.

“This challenges the common idea that women are much more likely to want to have children than men, and that they consistently experience a range of negative emotions more deeply than men if they don't have children.”

The parenting paradox

So men yearn for children almost as much as women, and feel the loss even more deeply if they can’t have them. But what about when we do have them? Here the evidence gets a little more complicated.

That’s down to what psychologists call the parenting paradox, which goes something like this.

Humans need to have children. Children fulfill a basic biological need. But children are a source of unhappiness. So surely evolution has messed that up a bit?

And some studies do show that children and childcare don’t make us happy. One study, for example, found that parents of either sex are more prone to depression, and experience more marital strife, than their childfree counterparts.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at University of California, “it doesn’t make sense evolutionarily. We want people to have children so why would having children make them unhappy?”

Dads are happiest

But as it turns out it may all depend on what you ask. If you ask if children have had an adverse effect on someone’s sex or social life, for example, it invariably makes them feel a bit miserable. If you ask more fundamental questions about what makes people fulfilled or gives meaning to their lives, children seem to be the answer.

And one surprising finding is that dads are most fulfilled of all. In one study, Professor Lyubomirsky gauged the happiness of nearly 7,000 people and found that fathers, in particular, reported higher levels of happiness than men without children.

But it was happiness of a different kind than the sex and social life hedonism mentioned earlier, which might indeed have declined. Fathers expressed more positive emotion and said their lives had more meaning. Both parents reported that they experienced more positive emotion and more meaning when they were taking care of their kids than when they weren’t.

So while it’s true that studies find men’s happiness can take a hit when they become dads, it seems to depend on what sort of happiness we’re talking about. Our ability to enjoy hedonistic pleasure declines, but our sense of fulfillment and meaning increases.

Or, as a Pew Research Center survey found, parents "place their relationships with their children on a pedestal rivaled only by their relationships with their spouses - and far above their relationships with their parents, friends, or their jobs or career.”

Children make men healthier

It could be that the sense of fulfillment children bring is making us healthier and helping us to live longer, too. Last year a Danish study found that childless couples are at increased risk of dying early of all causes. Those hedonistic pleasures they still have the time and money to pursue might not be doing them that much good.

The study found that fathers with a biological child were two times less likely to die an early death than childless men.

This mirrors the results of an earlier Dutch study, which found that fathers were 16% less likely to die young than non-fathers.

Maybe that’s because dads have less money to spend on nights out, junk food or fast cars. Maybe it’s because the desire to see their children grow up gives men a very good reason to improve their health.

And maybe it’s down to something else as well. We know that happy and positive people tend to outlive their more miserable counterparts, and maybe fatherhood is the slice of deep contentment many of us need to be truly, fundamentally happy.

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