What is one thing that made you happy today?

It could be any number of things — that first cup of coffee, a clean kitchen, or pictures of baby zoo animals.

But social and behavioral scientists tell us the one thing that will create enduring happiness throughout our lives is the quality of our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and our "community."

This week in the Happiness Blog we explore the research which is providing new insights into how our social interactions influence our happiness, both day-to-day and long term.

We'll start by exploring the relationships between parents and children. Do children make us happy?

According to some studies, our little bundles of joy are really bundles of tedium. For example, a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist, is often cited. Kahneman surveyed working Texas moms and found that child care ranked 16th in pleasurability out of 19 activities. (They preferred preparing food, watching TV, exercising, napping, and housework over childcare.)

Most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy than married parents, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each additional child just makes it worse. Children have also been shown to reduce marital satisfaction. Yikes.

So what is going on here? Why would so many people want to have children — or even work with them as teachers, coaches, and child care providers? Is this a case of mass delusion (cognitive-dissonance), as some researchers suggest?

We choose to look at this from another perspective, one championed by philosophers, which suggests that this discrepancy is a wonderful example of the different ways we define happiness. Many philosophers take the view that happiness is best defined by ancient Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, who said that happiness comes from leading a productive, purposeful life according to our personal values. It just so happens that Tucson has local expertise on this subject. Julia Annas, a Regents’ Professor of Philosophy at the UA, is considered one of the world’s leading scholars on values and happiness. (On November 13, UA Professor and Philosopher Dan Russell will speak on this topic as part of the Downtown Lecture Series on Happiness).

When Kahneman surveyed those Texas women, he was measuring moment-to-moment happiness, their mood at different times of the day. But when parents are asked about parenting in terms of whether it is rewarding or gives them purpose, the answers are different. In the Time magazine story “Do Children Bring Happiness — or Misery?”, Psychology Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, “In our own research … all types of parents reported having more meaning in life than did their childless counterparts, suggesting that the rewards of parenting may be more ineffable than the daily highs (or lows).” Jennifer Senior, in her New York Magazine article “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” comes to the same conclusion: “For many of us, purpose is happiness …” and, among other things, children can give us a powerful sense of purpose.

What do you think? Does raising children make you happy? Does it bring you day-to-day happiness or does it bring more meaning to your life?

Happiness Question

What is one thing that made you happy today?