Permission Granted: Happiness Restored
Saturday started with an endorphin-elevating exercise session. By mid-day we were engaged in a spontaneous visit with friends. Later, an afternoon errand to the mall ended with me loading a treasure trove of deeply marked down stylish tops into the trunk, and the evening brought margaritas and carnitas in the cocktail lounge of a boisterous, brightly painted Mexican restaurant. The day brought a flashback to more than a decade ago before we engaged in the infertility dance. It was an altogether enjoyable day filled with goodness, laughter, and all around contentment, which reminded me of a few happiness studies I’d read in the past.
I was not in the frame of mind to fully appreciate some of these happiness studies in the midst of infertility heartbreak, but with more time adjusting to my new life, I’m now in a position to take away new meaning. Happiness comes in many forms, and apparently those without children around have it in more abundance. A few different reports and studies make that point crystal clear.
A USA Today story in 1997 reported on an Arizona State University sociology study concerning happiness. Among the findings:
- “For all the joys of parenthood, the first baby’s arrival spurs a long drop in marital happiness that hits its nadir during a child’s teen years.
- “Childless spouses are as happy as couples are before babies arrive. Without the buffeting cycles of child rearing, they tend to stabilize at this high level over time.”
A more recent New York Times piece shared findings from a scientific study of marriage revealing “the negative effect children can have on previously happy relationships…despite the popular notion that children bring couples closer, several studies have shown that marital satisfaction and happiness typically plummet with the arrival of the first baby.”
Corroborating these findings, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert learned that “the more kids you had, the sadder you were likely to be.” His other conclusions following a review of US and European studies:
- “In reality … children do seem to increase happiness as long as you’re expecting them, but as soon as you have them, trouble sets in,” he said. “People are extremely happy before they have children and then their happiness goes down, and it takes another big hit when kids reach adolescence.
- “When does [happiness] come back to it’s original baseline? Oh, about the time the children grow up and go away.”
And about those who always say that their children are their greatest joy, Gilbert had this to say to them: “The fact that parenthood crowded out all other things in life could explain why we considered children our greatest source of joy. `Yes, when you have one source of joy, it’s bound to be your greatest’.”
Terrific point, Daniel!
I’m coming to realize with each passing day that joy in different flavors does return when our grieving is done, and after we give ourselves permission to seek out new and different activities, interests and adventures.
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p.s. And if you’re up for reading more, I wrote this piece for Open Salon called “Curious Consequences of Older Motherhood.”