The Happiness Factor in Parenthood

Parenthood has both positive and negative aspects. Having children brings out a sense of adulthood with responsibilities and generates happiness. At the same time, if there is stress in the interpersonal relations between parents, including financial worries and physical workload, it leads to unhappiness. This study shows that younger parents are less happy to be in parenthood compared to parents above the age of 40. This positive association is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family. It indicates that in such countries, children are seen as a long-term investment in the well-being of parents.

A strong cultural belief exists that children increase the well-being and happiness of parents, especially women. But research in northern Europe and the U.S. has shown that parenthood and happiness might not go hand in hand. Having a child gives joy, improves social bonds with family and friends, and induces a sense of adulthood and responsibility. However, becoming a parent increases housework and the possibility of strained relationship between the parents. This study examined the fertility-happiness association globally, using the World Values Surveys (WVS) data for 86 countries to explore the relationship between parenthood at specific stages of life and its impact on happiness.

* A total of 201,988 respondents from 86 countries from the World Values Surveys were included in this study.
* Happiness was rated on a scale of one (not happy at all) to four (very happy) with the number of children coded as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4+.
* Socioeconomic status was measured by relative household income level and self-reported social class.
* The welfare status of countries was decided by the category of regimes such as social democratic, conservative, liberal and previously socialist etc. Total fertility rate for each country was collected from the World Bank Development Indicators Database.

* Tanzania, El Salvador and Venezuela rank highest in happiness, with mean happiness above 3.4 on a scale of 1 to 4. Moldova, Belarus and Albania rank the  lowest, with mean happiness below 2.5.
* Happiness decreases by 0.03 units when parents have one or two children. Having 4 or more children further decrease happiness by 0.06 units.
* In people less than 30 years of age, happiness decreases with the number of children. This trend is not seen between ages 30 and 39 and at older ages. Forty years onwards happiness increases with the number of children.
* People with fewer financial resources are likely to be less happy with parenthood.

Shortcomings/Next steps
This study included people who have no children. Not having children might be related to the choice of these people rather than their fertility. The study also assumed that life events such as having children impact happiness, which in fact depends upon multiple factors such as social or biological endowments of a person. These life events might provide just a minor contribution to the sense of well-being.

There is a widespread belief that children bring happiness, but most research studies find either a negative or an insignificant relationship between parenthood and well-being. This global study involving data from 86 countries attempted to explain the discrepancy. It explained the influence of economic conditions, welfare support from the state and age of parents on their happiness. In the early stages of parenting, factors such as lack of sleep, concerns about the safety and development of the child and financial strains might make young parents less happy.  The positive aspects of having children are possibly realized after the age of 40. This study found that happiness and having children is positively linked in the age group of 40 and above.

For More Information:
A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility
MPIDR Working Papers, December 2010
By Rachel Margolis; Mikko Myrskylä; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.


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