As I tried to read about a new study finding that fathers are happier than mothers, the children came in and out of my office, arguing, yelling and even crying about pancakes for a full 15 minutes.
At last, I was able to get some quiet minutes to digest the study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
University of California-Riverside psychologists analysed three studies and determined that fathers experience more well-being from parenting than mothers.
One possible explanation, said the study, was that fathers reported playing more with their children, and suggested that all parents might benefit from more play.
I have to admit: my first reaction to the news that I should make myself happier by adding more play to the long, long list of things I already do with my children was not a good one, especially while my statistically-likelier-to-be-happy husband was at his office not being interrupted by bickering children.
There had to be more to this, I decided.
So I called Katherine Nelson-Coffey, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, US, to get the full story.
I wanted to know why her team thought moms should play more with their kids, and whether there might be other reasons dads are happier.
She explained that her paper reported on three studies. The first two found that parents report greater well-being than non-parents, with fathers reporting greater well-being than moms.
The third study dug a little deeper: how do moms and dads feel when they are doing things with their kids?
Participants downloaded an app and three times a day entered what they were doing, whether they were talking or interacting with anyone, and how they felt.
Moms and dads both reported being happier when they were talking or interacting with their child, but the effect was greater for fathers. The dad happiness advantage was most dramatic for child care.
“Fathers reported greater happiness during child care than for anything else, whereas mothers reported lower happiness during child care than for other activities during the day,” says Nelson-Coffey.
What could explain the difference? Maybe, thought the team, the answer was play. In the study, dads were more likely to report playing with their children at the same time they were interacting with or taking care of them.
Here’s where I pressed Nelson-Coffey. Isn’t it possible, I asked, that dads play more because they’re happier, and therefore feeling more playful? Yes, she agreed. The study can tell us that dads are happier, but not exactly why.
“It’s certainly plausible that fathers are more likely to initiate play with their children,” she says.
“I would expect a kind of feedback loop where fathers are feeling happy, so they might initiate more play, and that might make them feel happy, and it becomes an upward spiral.”