Hang in there, parents.
Why do people have children? The more appropriate question, probably, is why they don’t — since most people throughout history have had children whether they had a reason to or not. But, true to the modern practice of justifying one’s major family decisions with a social science survey, potential parents might now like to consult a recent article by Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskyla (and reported in the NY Times) entitled, “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility.”
Using data from the World Values Survey — more than 200,000 people in 86 countries interviewed over 25 years — they show that having more children generally makes people less happy. But children do make parents happier — only after about age 40. Here’s the pattern:
Above age 40, people with 1-to-3 children are the happiest. The question was, “taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy, or not at all happy?” In the analysis, they control for sex, socioeconomic status, income, marital status, the year of the survey and the country (to avoid cultural tendencies to interpret the question differently). In the end, the authors believe the happiness effect results mostly from the support provided by children to their parents. They conclude:
…the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40, and is strongest among those who are likely to benefit most from support from children in their later years. This age gradient is evident for both sexes, at all income levels, for those in good and bad health, for those who are in partnerships and those who are not, for all welfare regimes, at all levels of fertility, and for our period of study from 1981 to 2005. In addition, analyses by welfare regime show that the negative fertility/happiness link at young adult ages is weakest in countries with high public support for families, and that the positive association at ages above 40 is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family. These results suggest that children are a long-term investment in well-being, and they highlight the importance of both the life-cycle stage and macro contexts to the happiness/fertility association.
So, I guess the implication is that if we improve social means of support so that old people don’t need children to take care of them, children will provide less boost to happiness. But aren’t family relationships built on love and voluntary choices supposed to be more happiness-producing than those squeezed out of economic and social necessity?