Katie Nelson-Coffey, University of the South – Happiness Gap for Mothers

On University of the South Week:  Why is there a happiness gap for mothers?

Katie Nelson-Coffey, assistant professor in the department of psychology, explores this question.

Katie Nelson-Coffey has taught at Sewanee since 2015. She earned a B.S. in psychology from the University of Mary Washington and an M.A. and Ph.D. in personality/social psychology from the University of California, Riverside. In her research, she uses multiple methodologies (longitudinal, experimental, daily experience) to study how and why close relationships influence well-being. Her research focuses on what leads people to live happy and fulfilling lives. To this end, she examines how simple behaviors, as well as family life, influence health and well-being. Nelson-Coffey enjoys engaging students’ research interests and invites student collaborators with interests in personality, health, and well-being.

Happiness Gap for Mothers


Although many parents describe their children as the sources of their greatest happiness, raising children can also be demanding, stressful, and downright exhausting. Parenting clearly brings opportunities for both happiness and unhappiness.

In addition, mothers and fathers often play different roles at home, and those differences can affect their happiness as parents. In a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I asked: Who is generally happier—fathers or mothers?

In our first two studies, we were interested in general happiness levels. In these studies, fathers reported greater happiness and lower depression than mothers did, and they were also happier than men who do not have children. Yet mothers reported more daily stress than fathers and women without children.

In our third study, we wanted to understand parents’ feelings of happiness throughout the day, especially when they were caring for their children. Using the website www.trackyourhappiness.org, parents were contacted several times each day for 3 weeks and asked what they were doing, who they were with, and how happy they felt at that moment. Then, we compared mothers’ and fathers’ moods when they were taking care of their children with their moods while they were doing other activities.

Fathers reported happier moods while they were taking care of their children than other activities during their days, whereas moms felt less happy while they were taking care of their children. Notably, fathers were more likely to engage in play while they were taking care of their children, which suggests one reason why fathers are happier than mothers.

More work is needed to fully understand why dads are happier than moms, but one possibility involves how labor is divided in two-parent households. Making efforts to divide labor evenly, so that both parents have opportunities to engage in play with their children, may be one way to reduce the happiness gap for mothers.

  1. Helen Mills

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