The Paradox of Parenthood and Happiness: Exploring the Role of the Brain

Valentina Rotondi , University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland
Carlo Reverberi, University of Milano-Bicocca
Nicola Barban, University of Essex
Maria Sironi, University College London
Ridhi Kashyap, University of Oxford

In this paper, we explore a possible mechanism that might explain the association between parenthood and happiness: the neuro-anatomical changes occurring to parental brains when transitioning into parenthood and the role played by empathy. After birth and two years afterwards women show reduced gray matter volumes in regions subserving social cognition. Also fathers experience changes in their brain, although of smaller size.These changes also affect affective domains, such as empathy and social emotions. At the same time, the literature documents that emotional distress and the perception of other people's pain activate neural structures that are also involved in the direct experience of pain. As a result, we expect to find a negative relationship between parenting and happiness mediated by an increase in the ability to feel others' pain. We test this hypothesis by leveraging the richness of the UK Biobank Dataset including the collection of genome-wide genetic data and resting and task-based fMRI of around 100000 participants aged 40--69 years old.

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 Presented in Session 13. Novel Perspectives in Fertility Research