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Parents aren’t unhappier, studies find

Having kids may not make us miserable after all.

The findings of two new studies suggest that parents today might, in fact, be happier than non-parents.

The conventional wisdom over the past few decades — based on early research — has said parents are less happy, more depressed and have less satisfying marriages than their childless counterparts.

But the new studies — presented at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting, held in San Francisco — suggest that earlier findings could be flawed. The newer analyses use analytical methods based on data from almost 130,000 adults around the globe, including more than 52,000 parents.

“We find no evidence that parental well-being decreases after a child is born to levels preceding the children, but we find strong evidence that well-being is elevated when people are planning and waiting for the child, and in the year when the child is born,” notes the study, presented by co-author Mikko Myrskylä of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany.

The overall net effect of having children is positive, the research found.

It was based on an analysis of data from British and German parents. It follows the same people from four to five years before having kids to four years after. Parents’ happiness levels are compared to their levels before becoming parents.

The other study, of 120,000 adults from two nationally representative surveys between 1972 and 2008, found that parents were indeed less happy than non-parents in the decade 1985-95, but parents from 1995 to 2008 were happier. Co-author Chris Herbst of Arizona State University suggests that happiness among non-parents has declined, so parents are happier in comparison.

He says the evidence isn’t clear as to whether the average parent today is less happy than someone without kids. But he says what’s “undeniable is that parents have become relatively happier than non-parents over the past few decades.”

Both studies point to problems with earlier studies on parental happiness, including the fact that they don’t take into account individual personality differences. They also often use older data that may not apply to today’s parents.

Other findings from the European study suggest that characteristics such as parents’ age affect well-being. Those who become parents at younger ages have a downward happiness trend, while postponing parenthood results in a higher happiness level after the birth. But co-author Rachel Margolis of the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, cautions that risk of involuntary childlessness increases with age.

“The results are not meant to encourage women to wait to very high ages to have a first birth,” she says.

Their study also suggests happiness levels change with each child.

“The first child increases happiness quite a lot. The second child a little, the third not at all,” says Myrskylä.



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