An array of social problems would be mitigated if we could reduce the number of angry, unhappy men. But how? New research offers a simple answer: fatherhood.
The results of three studies with a total of more than 18,000 participants suggest that parenthood is hugely beneficial to men in terms of overall well-being. For women, the results are much more mixed.
"Fathers, but not mothers, are happier than their childless counterparts," reports a research team led by psychologist S. Katherine Nelson-Coffey of The University of the South–Sewanee. "Whereas fatherhood was associated with greater happiness and daily uplifts, along with stronger feelings of connectedness, motherhood was associated with greater hassles and lower levels of positive emotions."
That's right, ladies: You have to endure the rigors of pregnancy and giving birth, while fathers get most of the subsequent benefits. You're welcome.
The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, utilized data from a large representative survey of 13,000 Americans; a community sample of 472 Americans that asked in-depth questions about well-being; and an additional survey of nearly 5,000 parents, in which respondents reported their level of happiness when engaged in a variety of child-related activities.
In the first and largest sample, "Fathers reported elevated levels of well-being compared with men without children, whereas mothers did not," the researchers report. In an effort to probe beyond that survey's single measure of contentedness (respondents placed themselves on a seven-point scale from "very unhappy" to "very happy"), the next study got far more specific, asking about specific psychological needs such as autonomy, competency, and connectedness.
"Relative to their peers without children, fathers reported greater life satisfaction, autonomy, competence, and uplift, and they reported greater positive emotions and fewer hassles than mothers," the researchers report. "Conversely, mothers reported greater hassles and lower positive emotions, but also greater autonomy and uplifts, compared with their peers without children. Thus parenthood appears to be more consistently associated with well-being benefits for men."
The final study looked specifically at the experience of caregiving, and again found gender differences. "Men reported greater happiness while caring for their children compared with their other daily activities," the researchers report, "whereas women reported relatively lower levels of happiness while caring for their children."
Nelson-Coffey and her colleagues offer several possible explanations for these surprising results. One is that the positive emotions associated with playing with one's kids tend to spill over into other parts of fathers' lives. They found that this spillover is less true for mothers.
"Fathers had more positive experiences over the course of their days, and they felt closer and more connected to others who are important to them," the researchers write. In contrast, "mothers reported greater hassles in various life domains compared to women without children."
In addition, "Mothers may be relatively less happy because they are more likely to have high expectations about parenthood, and thus more likely to be let down by the experience," they write.
Finally, this discrepancy in satisfaction may reflect, at least in part, "an uneven allocation of labor in work and family domains."
"Unequal divisions of labor persist for many heterosexual couples, with women devoting more time to child care and household tasks." the researchers note. Women are more likely than men to view this situation as unfair, "which in turn results in reduced well-being."
These findings have important public-policy implications. If mothers get less satisfaction from parenthood, given that the childcare burden falls disproportionately on them, "policies that encourage shared distribution of parenting tasks could reduce this gap," the researchers argue.
"Studies suggest that fathers are more involved in child care when they take parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child," they write. "Thus, offering extended parental leave to both parents could improve mothers' well-being."
Perhaps Elizabeth Warren's proposal for universal access to childcare could also help. Too often, it appears, parenthood is a burden for women, while men experience it as a delightful addition to their lives.