Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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
A mother soothes her baby child
(Photo by Jenna Norman / Unsplash)
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?
A Spanish family sit down together for a meal.
(Photo from Flickr)
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
A young mother sits with her daughter.
(Photo by Katie Emslie / Unsplash)
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.
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
A new study proposes mysterious axions may be found in X-rays coming from a cluster of neutron stars.
Are Axions Dark Matter?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5e35ce24a5b17102bfce5ae6aecc7c14"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/e7yXqF32Yvw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.
What is deep acting?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ1NDk2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTY5MzA0Nn0._s7aP25Es1CInq51pbzGrUj3GtOIRWBHZxCBFnbyXY8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=333%2C-1%2C333%2C-1&height=700" id="ddf09" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9dc42c4d6a8e372ad7b72907b46ecd3f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Arlie Russell Hochschild (pictured) laid out the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 book, "The Managed Heart."
Credit: Wikimedia Commons<p>Deep and surface acting are the principal components of emotional labor, a buzz phrase you have likely seen flitting about the Twittersphere. Today, "<a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5ea9f140-f722-4214-bb57-8b84f9418a7e" target="_blank">emotional labor</a>" has been adopted by groups as diverse as family counselors, academic feminists, and corporate CEOs, and each has redefined it with a patented spin. But while the phrase has splintered into a smorgasbord of pop-psychological arguments, its initial usage was more specific.</p><p>First coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, "<a href="https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520272941/the-managed-heart" target="_blank">The Managed Heart</a>," emotional labor describes the work we do to regulate our emotions on the job. Hochschild's go-to example is the flight attendant, who is tasked with being "nicer than natural" to enhance the customer experience. While at work, flight attendants are expected to smile and be exceedingly helpful even if they are wrestling with personal issues, the passengers are rude, and that one kid just upchucked down the center aisle. Hochschild's counterpart to the flight attendant is the bill collector, who must instead be "nastier than natural."</p><p>Such personas may serve an organization's mission or commercial interests, but if they cause emotional dissonance, they can potentially lead to high emotional costs for the employee—bringing us back to deep and surface acting.</p><p>Deep acting is the process by which people modify their emotions to match their expected role. Deep actors still encounter the negative emotions, but they devise ways to <a href="http://www.selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf" target="_blank">regulate those emotions</a> and return to the desired state. Flight attendants may modify their internal state by talking through harsh emotions (say, with a coworker), focusing on life's benefits (next stop Paris!), physically expressing their desired emotion (smiling and deep breaths), or recontextualizing an inauspicious situation (not the kid's fault he got sick).</p><p>Conversely, surface acting occurs when employees display ersatz emotions to match those expected by their role. These actors are the waiters who smile despite being crushed by the stress of a dinner rush. They are the CEOs who wear a confident swagger despite feelings of inauthenticity. And they are the bouncers who must maintain a steely edge despite humming show tunes in their heart of hearts.</p><p>As we'll see in the research, surface acting can degrade our mental well-being. This deterioration can be especially true of people who must contend with negative emotions or situations inside while displaying an elated mood outside. Hochschild argues such emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and self-estrangement—that is, surface actors erect a bulwark against anger, fear, and stress, but that disconnect estranges them from the emotions that allow them to connect with others and live fulfilling lives.</p>
Don't fake it till you make it<p>Most studies on emotional labor have focused on customer service for the obvious reason that such jobs prescribe emotional states—service with a smile or, if you're in the bouncing business, a scowl. But <a href="https://eller.arizona.edu/people/allison-s-gabriel" target="_blank">Allison Gabriel</a>, associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, wanted to explore how employees used emotional labor strategies in their intra-office interactions and which strategies proved most beneficial.</p><p>"What we wanted to know is whether people choose to engage in emotion regulation when interacting with their co-workers, why they choose to regulate their emotions if there is no formal rule requiring them to do so, and what benefits, if any, they get out of this effort," Gabriel said in <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200117162703.htm" target="_blank">a press release</a>.</p><p>Across three studies, she and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 full-time employees on their emotional regulation with coworkers. The survey asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as "I try to experience the emotions that I show to my coworkers" or "I fake a good mood when interacting with my coworkers." Other statements gauged the outcomes of such strategies—for example, "I feel emotionally drained at work." Participants were drawn from industries as varied as education, engineering, and financial services.</p><p>The results, <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000473" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published in the Journal of Applied Psychology</a>, revealed four different emotional strategies. "Deep actors" engaged in high levels of deep acting; "low actors" leaned more heavily on surface acting. Meanwhile, "non-actors" engaged in negligible amounts of emotional labor, while "regulators" switched between both. The survey also revealed two drivers for such strategies: prosocial and impression management motives. The former aimed to cultivate positive relationships, the latter to present a positive front.</p><p>The researchers found deep actors were driven by prosocial motives and enjoyed advantages from their strategy of choice. These actors reported lower levels of fatigue, fewer feelings of inauthenticity, improved coworker trust, and advanced progress toward career goals. </p><p>As Gabriel told <a href="https://www.psypost.org/2021/01/new-psychology-research-suggests-deep-acting-can-reduce-fatigue-and-improve-your-work-life-59081" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PsyPost in an interview</a>: "So, it's a win-win-win in terms of feeling good, performing well, and having positive coworker interactions."</p><p>Non-actors did not report the emotional exhaustion of their low-actor peers, but they also didn't enjoy the social gains of the deep actors. Finally, the regulators showed that the flip-flopping between surface and deep acting drained emotional reserves and strained office relationships.</p><p>"I think the 'fake it until you make it' idea suggests a survival tactic at work," Gabriel noted. "Maybe plastering on a smile to simply get out of an interaction is easier in the short run, but long term, it will undermine efforts to improve your health and the relationships you have at work. </p><p>"It all boils down to, 'Let's be nice to each other.' Not only will people feel better, but people's performance and social relationships can also improve."</p>
You'll be glad ya' decided to smile<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="88a0a6a8d1c1abfcf7b1aca8e71247c6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QOSgpq9EGSw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>But as with any research that relies on self-reported data, there are confounders here to untangle. Even during anonymous studies, participants may select socially acceptable answers over honest ones. They may further interpret their goal progress and coworker interactions more favorably than is accurate. And certain work conditions may not produce the same effects, such as toxic work environments or those that require employees to project negative emotions.</p><p>There also remains the question of the causal mechanism. If surface acting—or switching between surface and deep acting—is more mentally taxing than genuinely feeling an emotion, then what physiological process causes this fatigue? <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00151/full" target="_blank">One study published in the <em>Frontiers in Human Neuroscience</em></a><em> </em>measured hemoglobin density in participants' brains using an fNIRS while they expressed emotions facially. The researchers found no significant difference in energy consumed in the prefrontal cortex by those asked to deep act or surface act (though, this study too is limited by a lack of real-life task).<br></p><p>With that said, Gabriel's studies reinforce much of the current research on emotional labor. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2041386611417746" target="_blank">A 2011 meta-analysis</a> found that "discordant emotional labor states" (read: surface acting) were associated with harmful effects on well-being and performance. The analysis found no such consequences for deep acting. <a href="https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0022876" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Another meta-analysis</a> found an association between surface acting and impaired well-being, job attitudes, and performance outcomes. Conversely, deep acting was associated with improved emotional performance.</p><p>So, although there's still much to learn on the emotional labor front, it seems Van Dyke's advice to a Leigh was half correct. We should put on a happy face, but it will <a href="https://bigthink.com/design-for-good/everything-you-should-know-about-happiness-in-one-infographic" target="_self">only help if we can feel it</a>.</p>
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.