Those little bundles of joy
aren't always tickets to happiness, as most parents know. But a new study
suggests that middle-aged parents in the United States living with younger
children are no more satisfied or happy than childless people.
The study isn't a
definitive take on the well-being of adults with and without children. Still,
it does suggest that people tend to make the right personal decisions about
parenthood, said study author Angus Deaton, professor of economics and
international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
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Within the limits of the
study, "there's no big difference in life satisfaction between those who
have kids and those who don't once you take into account their various life
situations," he said. "Some people say you really can't be happy if
you don't have kids. We think that doesn't make a lot of sense. People who have
kids by and large are those who want them."
Why try to figure out the
life satisfaction associated with parenthood? It's an important question
"because media has often portrayed parents as miserable," said Sonja
Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California,
Riverside, who studies happiness and is familiar with the new study.
For the study, published in
this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
Deaton and a colleague analysed 2008-2012 surveys of 1.77 million people in the
United States. The Gallup organisation conducted the surveys, which asked
participants about their lives and daily emotional experiences.
also looked at similar global surveys that asked questions of about 1 million
people from 161 countries.
The researchers focused on
people aged 34 to 46 with kids under age 16 living at home. Compared to others
in that age range, this group was more satisfied with their lives.
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groups were about equal after the researchers adjusted their statistics so they
wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as income and education, which are both
linked to a greater likelihood of having children.
The study is careful not to
assume that people automatically want kids. "Those without children are
not failed parents, and those with children are not failed non-parents," it
Deaton puts it this way: "If I wanted kids and couldn't have them,
that sure would do bad things to me. But if I didn't want kids and got one
because a stork happened to fly by, that wouldn't make me happy... People sort
of get what they want."
Worries and anxieties
The researchers also
discovered that middle-aged parents of younger kids had higher highs and lower
lows than everyone else. "Kids are fun, but they come with worries and
anxieties," Deaton said.
It's not clear from the
study whether the joys of having adult children and grandchildren push parents
past others on the happiness meter. Nor is it clear how freedom from kids might
contribute to happiness.
Lyubomirsky, the happiness
researcher, praised the study and said it is well-designed. She's especially
intrigued by statistics about the link between parenthood and life satisfaction
in the rest of the world.
Deaton found that
parenthood is linked to less life satisfaction in other parts of the
world outside the richer, English-speaking countries.
"I would love to see
more research trying to understand why parents in high-fertility countries are
relatively less happy," Lyubomirsky said.
Parents happier than non-parents
Older parents are happier