How to Be Happy, Married With Children


Happy family. Image: PD

After marriage your well-being dips and after divorce it rises; after childbirth, relationship satisfaction is permanently below its pre-birth level -– so says a meta-analysis of 2,159 studies, published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Sound dire? It is. But keep reading – the reasons for these dips and rises give us married-with-children guys hope.

“It turns out that in the period before marriage, well-being goes way up,” says Maike Luhmann, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in psychology in the Cacioppo Lab at the University of Chicago, and lead author of the study (who I talked to in the spirit of my book, Brain Trust).

And so the well-being dive after marriage is, in fact, a return to the level you were at before the pre-wedding bliss period, when bluebirds draped you in garlands and the forest creatures were your bestest friends. Similar is true of divorce: well-being is so terribly low in the period just before a divorce that after the event itself, the well-being boost brings you back to your baseline – where you were at before all the badness started.

Instead of looking two months before and four months after, taken a year before marriage and a year after, the event has little effect on well-being.

“Interestingly, though, an earlier study showed that some couples continue to drop through the well-being floor after marriage – they go lower than their baselines – and these couples are much more likely to get divorced,” Luhmann says.

So what about childbirth?

“We actually find a steeper decrease in well-being for men, suggesting that women’s well-being does not suffer as much from having children as men’s well-being,” says Luhmann. “But, of course, while this might be true for some men, it certainly wasn’t true for all – hopefully including my husband.”

So how can a guy remain happy while married with kids? It helps to look at the chunk of happiness that takes a baby dive.

“Relationship satisfaction after childbirth is permanently below its prebirth level. The long-term effects of childbirth on life satisfaction are also negative but not quite as severe,” writes Luhmann.

But while relationship and life satisfaction go down, something called affective well-being goes up. This affective well-being is the balance of your pleasant and unpleasant experiences. After kids (believe it or not as you burn breakfast while trying to get matching socks on matching kids), most people have a more positive balance of good-vs-bad experiences after the birth of a child. The question for your overall well-being is whether these experiences can outweigh your decrease in relationship and life satisfaction.

To know the answer, “One would have to know how people would weigh affective well-being and relationship and life satisfaction. For instance, does experiencing a one point gain in affective well-being feel the same as experiencing a one point drop in relationship and life satisfaction?” Luhmann says.

Still, her words hold the key to married-with-children well-being: Be happy in the moment with your kids.

By gathering powerful positive experiences with your kids, you can hope to outweigh potential losses in life and relationship satisfaction.

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