“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
My late father was a generous and kind man, but often morose. He was troubled about matters large and small, be they the fate of the world or the water in the basement.
I remember two times when he seemed genuinely happy. The first was when, unable to meet our family’s needs with his modest teaching salary, he took on a second job driving a bus. The other was a few years later, when he decided to advance his career—once again for the good of our family—by pursuing his Ph.D. During both periods, he was exhausted and overworked. But he smiled and laughed more than usual, and seemed untroubled by the small annoyances and big quandaries that normally brought him down. He looked back on those periods with real fondness.
This always seemed paradoxical to me: He was unhappiest when under the least pressure for money and time; he was happiest when under the most strain. But this paradox has an explanation—and in it, a happiness secret for fathers, potential fathers, and everyone else.
A good deal of research shows that in many areas of the industrialized world, men are fathering fewer children, and doing so later in life—even more so than women are. This is especially true for highly educated men. No doubt these decisions reflect both an economy that demands more schooling and skyrocketing education costs, for (potential) parents and for their (potential) offspring. But they also probably have to do with the fact that delaying or forgoing parenthood is more socially acceptable than it once was. When I was a boy, my dad once casually said (in a comment that made me slightly nervous), “It never occurred to me in the 1960s that one could choose not to have kids.” Today, nothing is especially odd about a man (or any adult) making such a choice.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, requires obvious economic and social sacrifices. But on the happiness balance sheet, the evidence supporting it is very strong: Fatherhood, for the average man, is a huge source of net well-being. In one study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012, researchers found that parents enjoyed higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than nonparents—and this was especially true for fathers. Similarly, researchers in 2001 found that men who lived with their young children (or who had grown children) had significantly higher life satisfaction and were less likely to suffer from depression than men who were childless or who were living apart from their young children.
In addition to being happier, men with kids work a lot more than childless men, even though their time tends to be constrained by family life. According to the 2001 study, men living with their children worked, on average, 6.6 hours more each week than childless men, and two hours more than men who were not living with their kids. Yet the impact on free time doesn’t seem to bother most dads; on the contrary, according to a 2016 Boston College study, Millennial fathers are significantly more likely than nonfathers to say, “My life conditions are excellent.”
One plausible explanation for these data patterns is that happy, hard-working men are the ones most likely to become fathers. But I believe an equally likely explanation is that hard work that provides for those we love brings happiness. This is consistent with a body of evidence on what psychologists call the “helper’s high,” which refers to the good feeling we get when we sacrifice for others. In one study in the journal Nature Communications, researchers showed that participants in a giving experiment felt significantly happier when they behaved charitably. Sacrificing for others—especially those you love most—is like a natural happiness drug.
This would explain the paradox I saw in my father. Obviously, the helper’s high can be overwhelmed when people take on more than they can bear. Plenty of literature shows the difficulties that family members face when caring for loved ones with intensive needs, or when experiencing severe financial duress. But under ordinary circumstances, when we leave our comfort zones of self-care and seek to serve others instead, we can find greater happiness.
Three happiness lessons emerge from the research on fatherhood and sacrifice. First, if you want kids, have them. The patterns in the data should help allay the common fear that becoming a father will be a net-negative force on a man’s well-being. The idea that staying childless and footloose is more satisfying is, on average, wrong. Everyone has a different experience of fatherhood depending on many factors, including the quality of one’s parenting partnership. But all things being equal, fatherhood is an excellent investment in happiness.
Second, don’t resist the work and sacrifice that fatherhood entails. I often feel resentful when family responsibilities pull me away from my personal priorities, which (unlike my dad’s) generally involve me wanting to work more. But resentments are a poor guide to happiness, and the 14th hour at the office is a bad trade for the first hour at home. If you, like me, sometimes find yourself feeling a little bitter about having to parent, try an “opposite signal” strategy: When you are annoyed that family needs are impinging on your individual desires, take it as a sign that you need to focus more on family, not less.
Clearly, some people can take this too far, sacrificing themselves beyond all rational boundaries. Other fathers sacrifice hardly at all for their families, or mistreat them. But if a dad is a good parent, he deserves to know it, which brings us to the third lesson: The helper’s high is great, but you can make your dad even happier by acknowledging and thanking him for the ways he’s served your family. Further, research overwhelmingly illustrates that showing your appreciation will likely improve your relationship and make you happier. Maybe you have the kind of dad who doesn’t take such recognition gracefully (“What the hell did you think I was going to do—let you kids starve?”). It doesn’t matter. The thanks will still register, and will help you both.
The lessons above provide a road map for fatherhood, but they won’t necessarily make it easy. Fathers and their kids never have a perfect relationship. In 1957, the American poet William Jay Smith made this point in his bittersweet ballad “American Primitive,” which recounts his memory of his own father’s misdirected love. The poem begins with this quatrain:
Look at him there in his stovepipe hat,
His high-top shoes, and his handsome collar;
Only my Daddy could look like that,
And I love my Daddy like he loves his Dollar.
I don’t have Smith’s lyrical skills, but I have my own childhood memory of my father’s (more healthily directed) love. So bear with me while I try my hand at a happier alternative:
My Daddy runs ragged, works 60-plus,
Kids at home and nothing is free;
He prefers to teach but drives a bus;
He’s happy to do it, because he loves me.
I know, I’m not a perfect poet—nor will I ever be a perfect father. But if I’m lucky, my kids will remember me like I remember my dad.