Was earlier research wrong? Are we happier having kids than not having them?
Some research has shown that having children doesn’t actually make people happier. But other, new research digs a little deeper to challenge that blanket notion and suggests the truth is a bit more nuanced than we’ve been told.
SALT LAKE CITY — Does having kids make people happier? The answer, at least according to research, has bounced around like a yo-yo with which said hypothetical children might play.
Most research, but not all, for the past two decades has suggested parents are slightly less happy than those who don't have kids, who have less pull on their time and resources. But a recent study from Italy's Bocconi University, a private institution in Milan, suggests that the question of how having children impacts a parent's happiness deserves a much more nuanced answer.
Parents are happier than non-parents, the new research says, as long as parents feel they can handle their work pressures to find work/life balance and they have the financial and other resources they need.
The study also said parents of young children — through grade school age — get greater happiness from their children than those of older minor children.
"Children make parents happy, after all," the headline on a story in The Economist says of the new analysis, noting the research combines a "longer, more detailed" way to measure happiness that considers various stages of parenthood, because how parents feel changes over time.
The study is not the first to find a happiness benefit to having kids. In the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2010, for instance, researchers wrote that "our results are consistent with an effect of children on life satisfaction that is positive, large and increasing in the number of children. The effect, however, is contingent on the individual’s characteristics." Several studies suggest parental happiness may vary somewhat by geographic and cultural factors, as well.
It's not easy to sort out which leads to which: happiness to children, or children to happiness. But the Italian study shows a country's relative wealth is key. "In rich countries, happier people are more likely to have children," the Economist article says. For instance, happiness and fertility rates are both higher in Denmark and Sweden than in Bulgaria and Hungary. "But that does not necessarily mean that happiness causes people to have children or vice versa: both low happiness and low fertility may be the result of being poorer, or worse educated, or of many other things," The Economist reported.
It isn’t the kids. It’s the cost of raising them. Having children makes people happier — if they can afford it. – The Atlantic
In a separate study earlier this year, two researchers analyzed 1 million Europeans long term to see how life satisfaction related to parenting. Dartmouth College's David G. Blanchflower and Paris School of Economics' Andrew Clark wrote in a working paper, "Children are expensive, and controlling for financial difficulties" reduces most of the negatives noted, turning them positive.
"We argue that financial difficulties explain the pattern of existing results by parental education and income, and country income and social support. Marital status matters. Kids do not raise happiness for singles, the divorced, separated or widowed," they wrote. Nor are all kids the same; the answer is more complicated with stepchildren than with children who are the biological children of both adults.
"Our research shows that once you take into account the difficulty of paying bills, then children increase happiness. We also find that your kids raise happiness the most compared to stepkids. Young kids raise happiness more than those from 10-14, who are preparing to leave home. Teenagers aren’t easy and our study shows that! Little kids don’t answer back as much! Clothes for teenagers are expensive," Blanchflower said in an interview with Katie Couric Media.
An article in The Atlantic noted: "It isn't the kids. It's the cost of raising them. Having children makes people happier — if they can afford it."
Other researchers have also highlighted how financial stress impacts parental happiness. In an research brief for the Council on Contemporary Families, Jennifer Glass of University of Texas at Austin called it a "happiness penalty" and listed related stressors for parents: "time and energy demands; sleep deprivation; work-family conflict; difficulty finding high-quality, affordable child care; and financial strain."
Part of a multi-institution team of researchers who published findings in the American Journal of Sociology, Glass wrote that "the negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy 'packages' had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents."
The policies they cited were not all about money, but included factors like flexible schedules and access to child care.
The Deseret News has reported many times that Americans are having fewer children, causing fertility rates to inch lower. Experts say that comes at a potential cost in the form of weaker safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare (fewer members of younger generations means less money put into them), economic stagnation and other challenges.
On the other hand, according to The Economist, another study from the Italian university says parents are more likely to have another child if they are happy with their work-life balance. The article concludes that "for governments which want to get their birthrates up, or simply put grins on the faces of their citizens, providing better child care seems to work well, certainly in France, for instance, and the Nordic countries. It increases both people’s happiness and their desire to have children. Children, in short, do seem to bring about happiness. And happiness brings about children."