Like motherhood, fatherhood is hard, too. And like motherhood, fatherhood is transformative.
The mental load of fatherhood has remained constant over the generations, but fatherhood is changing in positive ways that breed more happiness for dads
Actively joining their partner in the birth experience is not the only thing that is new to this generation of dads. Millennial dads are different from generations before them in their mindset as well, opening them up to greater participation and fulfillment in their new role.
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, "Today, fathers who live with their children are taking a more active role in caring for them and helping out around the house. And the ranks of stay-at-home and single fathers have grown significantly in recent decades."
Five key findings that define these changes are:
- Dads are just as likely as moms to say that parenting is extremely important to their identity. Almost half of fathers say they find parenting enjoyable all of the time.
- Dads spend on average seven hours per week on childcare, and nine hours on household chores. This is an average of 250% more involvement than 50 years ago, and almost 50% of today's dads don't think that is enough.
- It's become less common for dads to be their family's sole breadwinner. In 1970, dads made the money in almost half of the families. Now, almost 75% of two-parent families with children are dual-earning.
- Half of today's fathers find it challenging to balance work and family life. Working fathers are also about as likely as working mothers to say that they would prefer to be home with their children, but that they need to work because they need the income.
- Seventy percent of adults say it's equally important for new babies to bond with their mother and their father. However, on average, fathers take only one week off from work due to employers putting more pressure on them to return to work quickly after the birth or adoption of a new child.
Taken together, these new social findings reflect the shift in mindset that has enabled millennial men to experience fatherhood in a manner not always enjoyed by previous generations, allowing them to embrace more fully their fatherhood and enjoy the journey.
Millennial dads are happier than men without children
Research contradicts prior studies that have found that parenthood is not fun, but instead wrought with unhappiness, higher levels of depression, and less positive and more negative emotions. Most recently, a three-part study from UC Riverside finds that parents—especially fathers—are decidedly happier than non-parents.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, and the paper's senior author, says that, in fact she finds when asked about their biggest regret, people often cite the decision not to have children.
"It doesn't make sense evolutionarily," says Lyubomirsky, who is also a mother. "We want people to have children, so why would having children make them unhappy?" To answer that question, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues conducted in three different studies to look more closely at happiness levels in parents and non-parents.
The first study was conducted to determine whether just parents are happier overall, compared with non-parents. Researchers looked at data from four sets of a nationally representative sample of U.S. respondents who completed the World Values Survey (WVS, 2006)—research conducted by a global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life.
Over the course of 25 years, parents, in general, reported higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness, and thoughts about meaning in life than non-parents. But what's interesting is although all parents reported more frequent thoughts about having meaning in life than non-parents, further analyses of the data revealed that parenthood was associated with increased satisfaction and happiness most among fathers. These findings directly align with those from the Pew Research Center.
In the second study, researchers tested whether parents reported more positive emotional experiences and meaning in daily life than did non-parents. Handing out pagers to 329 parents and non-parents, the researchers beeped them randomly five times a day over the course of a week, asking them: "How happy are you?" Activity was recorded for that very moment parents were beeped, when toddlers could be melting down or giving snuggles.
The results suggest that there were more loving moments on a daily basis than not, because parents reported higher levels of momentary well-being, including more overall positive emotion and more meaning in life, than non-parents. And again, fathers, in particular, scored higher than childless men on all of the well-being indicators.
A third study was conducted online to compare how parents felt when they were taking care of their kids with how they felt doing other things during the day. Almost 200 parents were asked to reconstruct their previous day's activities, play by play, reporting how they were feeling during each activity.
Responses showed that parents experienced more positive emotion and more of a sense of meaning when they were taking care of their kids than when they were doing unrelated tasks. "Our analyses show that… parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life," said Lyubomirsky.
Millennial dads report higher work-life satisfaction than single millennial men
This cultural shift in fatherhood is a good thing. In a 2016 report, The New Millennial Dad: Understanding the Paradox of Today's Fathers, survey results from 1,100 millennials between the ages of 22 and 35 indicate that millennial fathers claim they are significantly more likely to feel their work and home life conditions are excellent, and they've gotten the important things they wanted in life, and that in most ways, they are living closer to their ideal life than single men.
"When you look at the percentages and the scores, fathers just seemed to have richer, more meaningful lives that they were more satisfied with than their single counterparts," said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a co-author of the report. Although the findings in the report contradict research showing that millennials are on track to have the lowest rates of marriage by age 40 than any previous generation, "... fatherhood clearly is enriching the lives of these men, at least according to their self-report," said Harrington.
Millennial fathers who split caregiving duties equally with their spouses say they are happiest
Furthermore, millennial dads who divided caregiving responsibilities equally with their spouses reported higher levels of work-life satisfaction. These dads scored well above the other dads in strongly agreeing with statements like, "If I had to live my life over, I would change almost nothing," that their life conditions were excellent, and that they were satisfied with their lives. "What was interesting to me was how pleased egalitarian fathers seem to be with themselves and their arrangement," stated Harrington.
Happiness and altruism—the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others at one's own expense—are intimately linked and biologically founded.
Altruism promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness. Research has shown that giving to and helping other people releases endorphins, which then activate the parts of our brain that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection. Being altruistic, like caring for others and spending money on them, as in fatherhood, leads to greater levels of endorphins released, compared to spending money on oneself.
Additional research has shed light on the fact that dads are the primary influencer in the family for generosity and altruism. And more research supports the theory that fathers modeling altruism, in turn, raise kids who do the same, and they're happier for it.
To sum it up, doing things for others is an essential ingredient to being happy. Sharing the workload with your partner and taking care of your kids is in effect doing things for others, which makes you happier. So, by way of altruism, it can be said that fatherhood is the very definition of happiness.