Happy after all? Parenting and life satisfaction.

In the last few months, the happiness of parents or, to be more accurate the lack of it, has received considerable attention in the media. Contrary to many parents’ perceptions, most research to date has concluded becoming a mother or a father reduces people’s happiness rather than increases it. So what’s going on?  Why do parents believe they’re happier when the research is suggesting the opposite?  Economist Luis Angeles from the University of Glasgow has some new insights.

Angeles analysed data from the British Household Panel Survey, an annual survey conducted with 10,000 households from 1991 to 2005.  His research differed from earlier studies of this area in two key ways.  Firstly, he focused on life satisfaction rather than happiness. Although the terms happiness and life satisfaction are often used interchangeably and the two concepts appear highly related, life satisfaction does perhaps ask people to take a longer term perspective than measuring current feelings of happiness.

Secondly, instead of treating parents as one homogenous group, he sought to explore the impact of having children on different groups of parents.  He set out to find out whether life satisfaction varies according to gender, age, income, education level and marital status in parents.

Children and marital status

What did Angeles find?  Marriage appears to matter when it comes to having children.  Angeles’ results would suggest that the arrival of children was positive for a married couple but possibly a problem for an unmarried one.  Children are positively related to married couple’s life satisfaction and the effect increases with the number of children.  While parents with only one child have practically the same level of satisfaction as couples without children, couples with three or four children have a significant boost to their happiness, equivalent to getting married or improving their health.  Children also appear to have a very positive impact on those widowed.  Children may therefore be mitigating to some degree the loss of a spouse.

In contrast, for individuals who are separated, living as a couple but not married or never married, parenthood had a large negative effect. However, these results were not statistically significant suggesting that they could be down to chance.

Gender: do men and women feel differently about parenthood?

Angeles then explored whether parenthood impacts mothers and fathers differently.  Women’s life satisfaction increased more than men’s when they had children. The differences were small when a couple had only one child but became significant by the time a couple has three children.

Age of parents

Parents who were under 30 had a small but not significant uplift in happiness whether they had one, two or three children.  In contrast, the satisfaction of parents over 30 increased with every new child up to a total of three children where the effect levels off.  Angeles’ suggests that three children may be the optimal number for many.  While parents under 30 may still feel they have time to have more, parents over 30 may feel time is running out.  Those parents over 30 may feel they have achieved their life goal with respect to children whereas those with less may feel a sense of disappointment.

Income and parenthood

For parents who earned less than 50% of the average income, parenthood had a small positive but not significant impact on happiness and this was true regardless of the number of children.  For the majority of parents who earned between 50 and 150% of the national average, life satisfaction increased as the number of children increases.  But for those in the top bracket earning over 150% of the national average income, children tended to lower life satisfaction although again this wasn’t statistically significant.

Education and becoming a parent

Angeles found that parents who had completed university had a significant uplift in happiness when they had one or two children, parents with a full high school education followed the established pattern with an increase in life satisfaction for every child but there was no clear relationship between parenthood and having children for those who left school before they finished high school.

I suspect that the results will seem a lot more plausible to parents than previous findings.  The results suggest that parenting is best thought of in terms of the meaning it creates in people’s lives rather than the moment by moment pleasure it creates.

It’s hard to draw general conclusions because the central point of the research is that parenthood affects people differently according to their circumstances.  It does however suggest that for a large proportion of people, having children can significantly increase life satisfaction.  Good news for parents.

Angeles L.  Children and life satisfaction.  Journal of Happiness Studies  (2010) 11: 523-538

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