On New Year’s Day I became a parent, sparking my curiosity in the research on parenting and well-being and inspiring a four-part series on parenthood and happiness. This is the second post. Check out the first post here.
Are parents happier than non-parents? Researchers have generally set about trying to answer this deceptively simple question in three ways:
Are people with children happier than those without children?
This is the most common approach to research on parenthood and well-being. In these studies, researchers typically tackle large datasets with thousands of adults, comparing the well-being of people with children to people without children. Although the approach is straightforward, the results are mixed with some studies finding parents are happier than non-parents and other studies find the reverse.
How can these studies with such a basic design find opposite results? One large problem with this approach is that little work is done to find out who exactly is making up these groups of parents and non-parents. Focusing on the non-parents, only 15% of adults do not have children, making them a small comparison group. More importantly, their reasons for doing so may differ greatly. Young adults may not have children when they take part in the research, but plan to have children later. Older adults may not have children because they were not able to do so, or they may have consciously made the choice to not have children. Imagine comparing a married 48-year old with three children to a married 48 year-old with no children who spent years and hard earned dollars fighting infertility and wishing to be a parent? Who do you think is happier? Now imagine that the non-parent comparison is a 48 year-old who loves to travel, lives all over the globe and chose not to have children because they wouldn’t fit a globetrotting lifestyle. Who do you think is happier? In one study, mothers were no happier than women who chose not to have children, but were significantly happier than infertile women (Callan, 1987). Choice plays an important role on the other side of the table as well—some people become parents by choice while others find themselves in the unexpected position of being a parent when they hadn’t intended it. How might choice affect happiness among these different groups?
Are people happier after they have children than they were before they were parents?