The Effect of Children on Happiness: The Latest from the Research Frontier
By Bryan Caplan
Hasty readers of happiness research often conclude that kids are a disaster for happiness. If you actually look at the size as well as the sign of standard estimates, however, the right conclusion is that kids ever-so-slightly reduce happiness. I then go on to point out that a great deal of parental unhappiness is unnecessary, so it is reasonable to think that kids combined with scientifically literate parenting would increase happiness.
A recent paper in the Journal of Happiness Research (“Children and Life Satisfaction” by Luis Angeles) suggests that I’m overly pessimistic. Contrary to most of the literature, it finds that kids often increase overall life satisfaction. I was tempted to dismiss this as a typical academic “man bites dog” result, but I was pleasantly surprised when I carefully read the piece.
The article begins by replicating the standard patterns in a big British data set, the British household panel survey (BHPS): If you run a multiple regression with typical controls, kids slightly reduce happiness. But then the paper takes advantage of a key feature of the BHPS: It follows the same people over time, so you can re-run the standard equations with fixed effects. In English, this means that you can see whether individuals’ happiness changes when their number of kids changes.
This simple and intuitive adjustment wipes out the standard results. The data set is so massive (almost 89k observations) that it should be possible to detect even microscopic effects of kids on happiness. None detected.
To get from this non-result to the “kids increase happiness” punchline, the author makes one last eminently sensible adjustment: It allows the effect of children on happiness to vary by marital status. This makes a lot of sense – it’s a lot easier for a married coupled to raise a child than a single mom. When you re-run the results this way, you find that as long as they’re married, having children makes people happier than they were before. And contrary to one of my earlier mea culpas, moms gain more than dads.
I have to admit: Based on personal experience, I’m skeptical. When I run optical fixed effects regressions (=”I check whether the people I know seem more or less happy after they have kids”), people almost always seem less happy once they become parents. But Angeles’ paper suggests one way to reconcile research with first-hand experience: Even when kids raise overall life satisfaction, they reduce area-specific satisfaction – particularly for socializing and leisure. Now consider: Where do I get the chance to observe others’ happiness? In social and leisure situations, naturally!
All things considered, this paper’s got a surprisingly plausible story. I wonder how it will fare against the attacks it is almost sure to provoke.