Decades of data suggest parenthood makes people unhappy

Decades of studies have shown parents to be less happy than their childless peers. But are the kids to blame?

  • Folk knowledge assumes having children is the key to living a happy, meaningful life; however, empirical evidence suggests nonparents are the more cheery bunch.
  • The difference is most pronounced in countries like the United States. In countries that support pro-family policies, parents can be just as happy as their child-free peers.
  • These findings suggest that we can't rely on folk knowledge to make decisions about parenting, on either the individual or societal levels.

How does one live a happy, meaningful life? For many the answer is, at least in part, raising children. Watching a child grow and learn about the world is a joyous experience, and the time spent providing unconditional love and care offers spiritual dividends. Then in our golden years, children can be a source of palliative comfort.

This view is so entrenched in our culture that many people, especially women, are pressured by friends and family into having children and feel they must justify their reason not to.

As is often the case, social reality proves more complicated than the worldview learned at mother's knee. Decades of research has compared the happiness and well-being of parents to nonparents, and the verdict is in: a lot of parents are less happy than their childless peers. But not all of them.

The parent trap

(Photo by Jenna Norman / Unsplash)

A mother soothes her baby child

Headlines claiming parents to be more dejected than nonparents certainly grab our attention, but such stories are hardly news. Empirical studies have been tracing out this pattern since the 1970s. Here are three sample papers demonstrating the trend:

A 2011 review by Thomas Hansen, a researcher at Norwegian Social Research, compared our folk understanding on the relationship between parenthood and happiness to the evidence. It found that people believe "the lives of childless people are emptier, less rewarding, and lonelier than the lives of parents," but that the opposite proved true. Children living at home interfered with their parents' well-being.

A meta-analysis by the National Council on Family Relations looked at a more specific metric of happiness: marital satisfaction. It found that couples without children reported more romantic bliss. The difference was most pronounced among mothers of infants, while fathers disclose less satisfaction regardless of the child's age. The authors noted the discrepancy likely resulted from role conflicts and restrictions on freedom.

Finally, a study published in the American Journal of Sociology looked at 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and compared the association between parenthood and happiness. Researchers Jennifer Glass (University of Texas, Austin) and Robin Simon (Wake Forest University) found that nonparents reveal higher levels of well-being in most advanced industrialized societies.

The happiness gap was widest in the United States, where parents were 12 percent less cheerful than childless adults. Fourteen other countries—among them Ireland, Greece, Britain, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia—also showed a less-than-sunny outlook for parents, but not to as large a degree as in the U.S.

Are the kids alright?

(Photo from Flickr)

A Spanish family sit down together for a meal.

Based on a glance at this research, one could posit that children are a predominant source of unhappiness—and yes, we all know that one kid who is Exhibit A for this statement. But these researchers were careful to note that these effects are correlative, not causative, and there are many factors in the mix beyond progeny.

Hansen's review points out that the parents most susceptible to unhappiness were women, singles, those in lower socioeconomic strata, and those living in less pro-parenthood societies. Meanwhile, the National Council on Family Relations saw the largest decrease in martial satisfaction among the higher socioeconomic groups, likely because their status afforded them greater freedoms before having children.

Glass and Simon found eight countries where parents reported higher levels of happiness than nonparents, including Spain, Norway, and Portugal. Their analysis indicated that countries offering "more generous family policies, particularly paid time off and childcare subsidies, are associated with smaller disparities in happiness between parents and nonparents."

A potential reason? Parents in countries supporting pro-family policies contend with fewer stressors. They can take more parental leave, enjoy expansive subsidized care, and aren't as financially burdened by educational expenses. This is especially true when compared to the U.S., which provides little support for parents compared to the other countries in the study.

Importantly, Glass and Simon also found that such policies had no detrimental effect on the happiness of nonparents. In fact, the presence of strong pro-family policies led to greater happiness for women of all statuses.

Parental unhappiness is... complicated

(Photo by Katie Emslie / Unsplash)

A young mother sits with her daughter.

Taken together, these three studies suggest a major cause of parental despondency is scarcity. Lower-class parents find it difficult to patch together the money, resources, and social networks necessary to succeed in their own lives while also supporting their children. Even upper-class parents can grow weary if a resource in short supply is traded off, such as time or the freedom to self-actualize.

Countries with pro-family policies can offset these scarcities to help balance the happiness gap between parents and nonparents.

But research in this field casts a wide net. As studies shift their focus, they draw different conclusions to give us a fuller, if more complicated, picture of parenthood's many pitfalls. Taken together with scarcity, all of the following factors likely have some pull on parental happiness, though it is difficult to say to what degree.

Culture of extended families. Countries like Spain and Portugal, where parents report being 3.1 and 8 percent happier than nonparents respectively, culturally center on extended families. The Spanish manage personal problems through family, an approach that extends to child rearing where many hands make light work.

In sharp contrast, the United States culturally centers on a sense of individualism and mobility. Its nuclear family model consists of small family units where parents take near sole responsibility for raising children while the extended family lives in separate domiciles, sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Who becomes a parent. Glass and Robin note that their results could be tempered by parental selectivity. They propose that countries like Spain and Italy, which have low fertility rates, may select toward people who truly desire to have children. The United States, with its much higher fertility rate, could have people not strongly predisposed to parenthood having children nonetheless.

Children in the home. An analysis from the Institute for Family Studies found that men aged 50-70 are happier than their childless peers if their children have left home. However, men who still had children at home reported being less happy than either nonparents or empty nesters. For women of the same age, being an empty nester resulted in a slight decrease in happiness compared to nonparents, but a steep decline if the children lived at home.

Number of children. The same analysis showed that women with only one child were seven percentage points less likely to report being happy than nonparents, while women with three or four children showed no discernible difference. No significant variance emerged for men.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger, the analysis' author, admits these results are counterintuitive and posits two possible explanations. The first is unmet family size preference redounding unhappiness, as many people settle for fewer children than they'd like. The second is a strong sense of familism offsetting parenthood's more negative effects. It is unlikely that family size in-and-of-itself causes a decline in happiness.

Parenting style. The way a parent approaches parenting may have substantial effects on their happiness. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik argues in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter that our modern parenting model, in which we view children as material to be molded into a particular type of adult, is not only wrongheaded but also a source of stress and misery for many parents.

"It isn't just that the [current] parenting model isn't the natural model, it's also just not a very productive model," developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik told Big Think. "It hasn't helped parents or children to thrive. It's led to a great deal of anxiety and guilt on a part of parents and a great deal of hovering expectations for children that really aren't necessary and in fact may even be counterproductive if we still want children to innovate and create."

Self-perception. A Pew Research Center survey found that parents who reported being very happy with life also believed they were doing an excellent job as a parent.

We still have much to learn about parenthood, and the results of so much variegated research can sometimes feel in contention. Even so, it should be clear that our folk assumptions about family are in need of a major update, and we must reconsider our views on parenthood, both from an individual perspective and with regard to social policy.

With that said, there are two strong conclusions we can draw from what we do know. For nonparents, your choice to be childfree will not doom you to a sullen, meaningless existence where you'll spend your final days contemplating a life wasted, like some inverse It's a Wonderful Life.

Nor are parents doomed to immolate their happiness on the altar of their child's future. Parenthood can be a source of exuberance, but simply raising a child will not magically bring contentment to your life. If anything, you'll have to work harder for that contentment as many factors, some in your control, some not, dictate parental happiness. Anyone considering parenthood should weight them judiciously before making a decision.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

Videos
  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
  • We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
  • With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
Keep reading Show less