Children beget happiness, eventually

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?

9 thoughts on “Children beget happiness, eventually

  1. I chat regularly with a young man and friend from Delhi, India. It is always fascinating to me the differences in our culture and understanding of the world. We talk often about my choice, as an American woman at age 33 (though it has always been my chosen path, even as a young adult) to remain childless. This boggles his mind, but his reasoning as to why I should have children always boggles mine.

    “But who will take care of you when you are older?!” he always asks me.

    The idea of having a child just to have insurance for old age seems odd and even a bit selfish to me, but I can understand that – in his world – it is perceived and even experienced differently.

    I suppose having children may make people happy for different reasons in different regions?

    As for having children in present-day America, I don’t know any of my child-having peers who are actually “happy” overall, even if they say as much. Mostly they seem exhausted, overwhelmed, and sometimes slightly irritated, all in need of a long, child-free vacation.


  2. Coming to this late, but isn’t there a simpler explanation? That is, by the time the parents reach age 40, their children are (generally) well out of the diaper, toddler, and preschool stages. Some will be in the teenage years, which carries its own stresses, but from what I hear teenager independence does have an upside in that parents have more time to balance kid-focused and non-kid-focused activities.

    As a variation on this theme, by age 40, the parents are near their peak earnings and, relatively speaking, more financially secure. Dual-career parents no longer have the monthly outflow of child care costs. (Sure, older kids are expensive, too, but I’d guess a large monthly check to the local day care provider puts a greater dent in perceived financial security than an equivalent monthly outflow that leaves in bits and pieces via sports equipment, musical instruments, gallons and gallons of milk, etc.)


  3. I do wonder how much the over-40 effect is related to the parents age vs. the kids’ age.

    As parents reach the 40-year mark, they are more likely to be financially stable, but this survey controls for income, right?

    My personal experience is that infants, toddlers and pre-school-age children bring a certain kind of happiness, but that they also require lots of work and attention. As they get to be school-age, they are easier to take care of, but also become more independent and less focused on making their parents happy by being cute. As for teenage years, I have no experience there yet…

    For me, living in a small town, having a partner who works at home, and being lucky and flexible enough to get quite a bit of leave time has meant that parenting hasn’t been as stressful for me as it has been for some of my colleagues.

    This comment is kind of late, but I was just thinking about the relationship between parenting and happiness this morning, and decided to write my mother an email. (oh, yeah, i probably should write a note to my dad as well….)


  4. Isn’t happiness related to the broadness of your social circle? Having children broadens your social circle — but when they’re small/dependent that is offset by the financial strains and lack of sleep.

    Also, when you’re older your children are more likely to be “grandchildren”, and I swear, my kids are the light of their grandparents lives. (And then the grandparents go home and we deal with grandparent withdrawal and while the grandparents get to sleep through the night!)


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