Bryan Caplan  

Kids and Happiness: The State of the Art

PRINT
Maximizing Short-Run Profits... Robert Reich on the Minimum Wa...
Nelson, Kushlev, and Lyubomirsky's "The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How Is Parenthood Associated With More or Less Well-Being?" (forthcoming in the Psychological Bulletin) is a great survey of research on parenthood and happiness.  Quick version: Contrary to media headlines about parental misery, parenthood is a very mixed bag.  The hedonic effects of having kids depend heavily on personal characteristics, circumstances, and measures used.  For starters, the effect of kids on happiness depends on...

1. Parental age
[S]ome investigators have compared young and old parents with their respective childless peers. This research has demonstrated that middle-aged and old parents are either as happy or happier than their childless peers, whereas young parents are less happy than their childless peers.
2. Child age.
[P]arents of younger children experience lower well-being than parents of older children. We propose that these differences are primarily explained by the relatively greater negative emotions, greater sleep disturbances, and lower marital satisfaction experienced by parents of young children (cf. Bird, 1997), as well as by the enhanced feelings of closeness, connectedness, and basic evolutionary need satisfaction experienced by parents of relatively older children
3. Parental gender.
[P]arenthood is consistently linked to greater well-being among men but not among women in part because fathers experience relatively more positive emotion (e.g., Larson et al., 1994; Nelson et al., 2013) and mothers experience more negative emotion (e.g., Ross & Van Willingen, 1996; Zuzanek & Mannell, 1993).
4. Parental marital status.
[The research] can be interpreted in at least three ways, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive: (a) Becoming a parent magnifies the happiness gained from marriage (e.g., Aassve et al., 2012), (b) not having a partner to share the experience of child rearing diminishes the well-being gains and heightens the stress from having children (e.g., Nelson et al., 2013, Study 1), or (c) unhappy parents are more likely to become single through divorce, separation, or failure to attract a long-term partner.
5. Residence.
Both cross-sectional and transition-to-parenthood studies have shown that noncustodial parents report lower levels of well-being than custodial parents... This work suggests that the stress of not having one's own children at home and missing out on the pleasures of parenting may outweigh the stress of taking active care of one's children.
My main disappointment with the state of the literature: There's still little evidence on the effect of parenting style on parental happiness.
Although a large literature explores the implications of parenting style and parenting behaviors for child outcomes (e.g., Darling & Steinberg, 1993), very few studies examine how parenting style--and an intensive versus relaxed style in particular--might relate to the parents' own well-being.
Unfortunately, this excellent article will probably get little media attention because it lacks a sensational punchline.  But if you really want to know what researchers know about kids and happiness, "The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting" is the piece to read. 



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Jack PQ writes:

I don't know if we can conclude anything--what about selection bias? Having children is endogenous, so we'd need to look only at people who wanted kids but could not (for biological reasons, say).

Didn't Angus Deaton (Princeton) recently write about this and conclude that "We don't know", precisely for these reasons?

Intuitively, yes, the findings make sense. Having kids is hard. But when they grow up, you have the pleasure of their company, plus grandkids and old age care. None of this is surprising. But, still, we don't *know* that it is true, for the above reasons.

Al writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for policy violation. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Robb S. writes:

Thanks for posting this. I'm a fan of Lyubomirsky's work, which is usually a bit better than the sorta terrible stuff that often passes for happiness research. (The whole "complex dynamics of happiness" fiasco comes to mind.)

Big mistake I've made: When reading through happiness research, you need to be *really* careful about the word happiness. There is not one consistent measure. It's a multifaceted construct. Some studies ask a few questions about satisfaction, while other use retrospective diaries and so on to track positive emotion.

And, indeed, I don't like the happiness-as-satisfaction measure, given all the wonky things that research program has produced, like:

Objective measures from current populations reports and census data (such as health, education, and income) indicate that the situation for African Americans has either stagnated or declined during this period. The present analy- ses show that African Americans’ reports of general life satisfaction increased and there was a decline in happiness.

Or the huge satisfaction differences between the French and the Danish, even though objective measures are very similar. I'm reminded of the fact that the French report being less healthy than Americans, despite living three years longer. And the contradictions between experience sampling measures and self-reports, etc.

Really, everyone who wants to dive into the happiness literature ought to first read Kahneman's "Objective Happiness."

But, anyways, I digress from my main point, which is that there are significant differences in satisfaction based on childless-by-choice versus childless-by-circumstance:

They found that people who were childless by choice were not significantly different in subjective well-being than parents who were close with their children. Those childless by circumstance and those with distant relationships with their children were significantly less happy, less satisfied with life, and more depressed than parents who were emotionally close to their children.
Bostonian writes:

The first paragraph in the section "Why Children Might Lead to Greater Happiness" of the paper presents survey evidence that few people regret having had children.

Being married contributes to happiness, and someone who told prospective spouses that he never intended to have children may reduce his chance of getting married.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Bryan, I am really hoping that age 2-3 is not indicative of future returns on my investment!

Capt. J Parker writes:

"...as well as by the enhanced feelings of closeness, connectedness, and basic evolutionary need satisfaction experienced by parents of relatively older children."

This was self-evidently not written by a father teenage girls. Now where did i put that time machine?

Glen Smith writes:

@Mr. Econotarian,

I guess you aren't considering the benefits of embarrassing your kids in 15-20 years?

MingoV writes:

I'll make an unscientific observation about parenting styles and happiness. We raised my two children strictly. We set clear standards for behavior. Failure to meet standards resulted in punishment appropriate for the magnitude of the violation. Our girls were well behaved and generally happy, and we were happy with them.

Most of our neighbors and relatives used the 'relaxed' style of parenting that I call the 'let the child be a brat until you can't take it any more and then make an ill-considered intervention that never corrects the bratty behavior' style of parenting. Most of those couples were not happy about child-rearing.

dangerman writes:

Bryan - have you written about "The Son Also Rises" by Gregory Clark?

It appears to be making a bit of a splash, and has lots of implications for child raising.

Matt Skene writes:

I thought you might like to know that your work on this was referenced in a Cracked article today:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-problems-you-cant-blame-how-you-were-raised/

Nice to see crossover into popular sites.

Tracy W writes:

Robb S: great comment

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top