Kasey Hickey

Head of Content at BetterUp

Posted in: Diversity and Inclusion


Are Parents Happier (At Work)?

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Are parents happier at work?

Becoming a parent signifies the end of many things: an uninterrupted night’s sleep, the ability to to take a night off at a moment’s notice, and perhaps, your fancy glass coffee table with the dangerously sharp ends. But, according to our researchers’ latest findings*, it’s also the beginning of a newfound appreciation of work (and life) that you may not have had before you became a parent.

Becoming a parent not only increases our overall sense of gratitude and satisfaction with our jobs, but also enhances our feelings of happiness

In an anonymous survey of over 3,000 working individuals (37% of whom are parents), we found that becoming a parent parallels a number of interesting trends that, at times, contradict previous studies of parents. Our study found that:

  • Parents are more satisfied with their jobs than employees who are not parents
  • Parents are more grateful overall than employees who are not parents
  • Parents are happier than employees who are not parents; parents who hold managerial roles are slightly happier than parents who don’t hold those roles
  • Among parents, 94% participate in some form of inner work

Those of us who have young children weren’t surprised to learn that the escape from dirty diapers, cleaning messes, and temper tantrums makes work more appealing (hot cup of coffee, anyone?).

What we didn’t expect to discover was that becoming a parent not only increases our overall sense of gratitude and satisfaction with our jobs, but also enhances our feelings of happiness, that joyful state of being we might typically associate with a vacation or a trip to the spa.

Over the years, researchers have conducted a number of studies focused on understanding parental happiness, within a variety of populations, but results have varied, and discrepancies have emerged.

How do we understand these new findings, begin to challenge misconceptions, and reconcile the differences between our findings and previous ones?

What previous studies have revealed about parents

The effects of parenthood on happiness are complex, but things get even more interesting when we look at working parents, specifically.

Speaking to Newsweek about a study that was released in 2005, Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University, Robin W. Simon, wrote, “Parents of young children report far more depression, emotional distress, and other negative emotions than non-parents, and parents of grown children have no better well-being than adults who never had children.”

Research published in the American Journal of Sociology in November, 2016 (relying on data gathered between 2006-2008 and 2007-2008) showed that in some countries, parents are actually happier than non-parents, whereas parents are less happy in the U.S. (and the gap in happiness levels between parents and non-parents is greater than it is in other countries). The same study, as reported in The Washington Post, found that, “on average, an American parent reports being 12 percent unhappier than a non-parent in America,” with the “negative effects of parenthood on happiness […] is entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.”

But another study of medical residents found that those who were married or parents actually experienced greater satisfaction that those who were not. Getting even more nuanced, a 2014 study conducted by researchers S. Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushlev, and Sonja Lyubomirsky titled, “The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?” found that “parents are unhappy to the extent that they encounter relatively greater negative emotions, magnified financial problems, more sleep disturbance, and troubled marriages” but that they can experience greater levels of happiness when their needs are met. For example, parents with stronger social support networks are more likely to experience greater well-being. And employment can also increase well-being by diminishing financial strain.

In a 2011 study conducted at the University of Finland, researchers found that a “supportive work-family culture has positive employee outcomes,” including higher job satisfaction rates among mothers.

If you think that this is a lot to wrap your head around, there’s good reason: the effects of parenthood on happiness are complex, but things get even more interesting when we look at working parents, specifically.

Recent headlines would have you believe that parents — as a group — are generally less happy than non-parents, but our findings suggest that at least when it comes to working parents, this may not be the case (and certainly not the complete story).

Job satisfaction, gratitude, and happiness among working parents

Our study focused on three key dimensions with regards to working parents: job satisfaction, gratitude, and happiness. Across the board, parents reported higher rankings than non-parents. There’s still more research to be done in this area but we’re excited to start chipping away at what this all means, now.

Job Satisfaction: according to psychologist Lilly M. Berry (1997) job satisfaction is “an individual’s reaction to the job experience.” Job satisfaction can be measured through a variety of assessments and scales comprised of multiple components.

Gratitude: in psychology, gratitude is understood as an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has.

Happiness: a subjective mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.

Hypothesis 1: Social policies have improved over the years

One of the earlier studies cited in this post suggested that parental happiness levels were directly tied to social policies (and lack of support from both their employers as well as family networks). If, taking Jennifer Glass’s hypothesis that better parental leave policies are the key to closing the “parenting happiness gap” we might be led to believe that in the years since her study and ours, parental leave policies have improved. It’s also worth pointing out that Glass relied on data from 2007-2008, a time period that coincided with the financial crisis and may have hit parents particularly hard. Given that other studies have found that parental happiness hangs in the balance of the presence or absence of other stressors (financial, family, health), it’s reasonable to believe that as policies improve, so does parents’ sense of stability and support. Consequently, their happiness levels will improve as well.

Hypothesis 2: Parents have stronger support networks

The world of modern work has a dark undercurrent as individuals are more stressed, burned out, and lonelier than ever before. American workers’ well-being is at stake, so it’s surprising to see that working parents seem to be thriving, despite this. What could explain our findings? Another hypothesis is that American parents have stronger support networks, both at home and at work, that bolster them. And while social media might make some individuals lonelier, it’s possible that parents — with their Facebook groups, which sometimes translate into in-person connections — might actually create a salve against these stressors.

Hypothesis 3: Parents find work more meaningful (or more parents seek meaningful work opportunities)

There’s a lot to be said about meaning, and specifically how it relates to work. Studies have found that meaningful work is directly related to job satisfaction and life satisfaction; it’s also correlated with lower rates of depression. While we didn’t compare two different datasets, our survey population was diverse, and included managers and non-managers.

It’s also worth noting that parents aren’t just engrossed in outer work. Among parents, 95% participate in some form of inner work, which we define as “mental acts or activities focused in your inner world to achieve a purpose or result.” These activities include taking a walk, journaling, reading, coaching, and taking time off (among others). Perhaps this, too, correlates with parents’ increased levels of job satisfaction, gratitude, and overall happiness.

Whether they see work as a respite or a place where they can cultivate meaning, parents’ positive emotions span from the office to their home, regardless of their position, income, age, and ethnicity.

*Special thanks to BetterUp behavioral data scientist Andrew Reece and Chief Innovation Officer, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman.

Original art by Theo Payne.

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