We all know the standard script surrounding divorce. A young person learns his/her parents are divorcing and their fantasy of a happy family is shattered. Falling into despair they under-perform in school, victims of selfish parents who put their own needs above that of their children.
At the risk of impinging on the intellectual territory of Hollywood screenwriters, I would like to present some compelling new evidence that the standard narrative of despair among young adults following parental divorce is pure fiction.
Researchers at the University of Warwick conducted a laboratory experiment with university-aged students that measured both their productivity and their level of happiness. At the end of the experiment they asked students about their parents’ marital histories.
Using this data they find that students whose parents have divorced are not less happy than other students and, in fact, students whose parents divorced in the last three years are happier than other students. There is a statistically significant positive relationship between self-reported happiness and parental divorce in the previous three years, particularly among young men.
These same students whose parents have divorced are also no less productive than other students and, if anything, they are slightly more successful at the same tasks particularly if the parents divorced within the previous five years.
You might be thinking that university students are not very representative of the whole population, and you would be right.
The researchers repeated this exercise using the very large, nationally representative British Household Panel Survey (with data collected annually from 1991 to 2008) that asked all household members the question “Have you been feeling reasonably happy, all things considered?” The response in this paper is measured on a scale of one to four where one is “Much less than usual”, two is “Less than usual”, three is “About the same as usual” and four is “More so that usual”.
The following graph illustrates their results. It plots happiness in the five years surrounding a parental divorce – the two years before (t-1 and t-2), the year of divorce (t) and the two years following (t+1 and t+2). As you can see, happiness appears to increase in the year in which parents divorced and then return to its original level in the following two years.
This disconnect between our media driven perceptions and empirical evidence reminds me of a recent article in Jezabel that suggested that we don’t need academics to inform our understanding of human relations when we have network television shows to do that for us. (And yes, in that article I was the tedious academic and, just for the record, the television show educating us as to the true nature of human relations was none other than Cougar Town. Go figure.)
I guess it doesn’t make for every good drama when an adult child, upon hearing of their parents' divorce, thinks “Finally!” Is it so hard to believe that young adults want their parents to be happy?
Proto, Eugenio; Daniel Sgroi; and Andrew J. Oswald (March 2012). “Are happiness and productivity lower among young people with newly-divorced parents? An experimental and econometric approach.” Experimental Econ Vol. 15: pp. 1–23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10683-011-9285-5