Kids and Happiness: The State of the Art
By Bryan Caplan
Nelson, Kushlev, and Lyubomirsky‘s “The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How Is Parenthood Associated With More or Less Well-Being?” (forthcoming in the Psychological Bulletin) is a great survey of research on parenthood and happiness. Quick version: Contrary to media headlines about parental misery, parenthood is a very mixed bag. The hedonic effects of having kids depend heavily on personal characteristics, circumstances, and measures used. For starters, the effect of kids on happiness depends on…
1. Parental age
[S]ome investigators have compared young and old parents with their respective childless peers. This research has demonstrated that middle-aged and old parents are either as happy or happier than their childless peers, whereas young parents are less happy than their childless peers.
2. Child age.
[P]arents of younger children experience lower well-being than parents of older children. We propose that these differences are primarily explained by the relatively greater negative emotions, greater sleep disturbances, and lower marital satisfaction experienced by parents of young children (cf. Bird, 1997), as well as by the enhanced feelings of closeness, connectedness, and basic evolutionary need satisfaction experienced by parents of relatively older children
3. Parental gender.
[P]arenthood is consistently linked to greater well-being among men but not among women in part because fathers experience relatively more positive emotion (e.g., Larson et al., 1994; Nelson et al., 2013) and mothers experience more negative emotion (e.g., Ross & Van Willingen, 1996; Zuzanek & Mannell, 1993).
4. Parental marital status.
[The research] can be interpreted in at least three ways, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive: (a) Becoming a parent magnifies the happiness gained from marriage (e.g., Aassve et al., 2012), (b) not having a partner to share the experience of child rearing diminishes the well-being gains and heightens the stress from having children (e.g., Nelson et al., 2013, Study 1), or (c) unhappy parents are more likely to become single through divorce, separation, or failure to attract a long-term partner.
Both cross-sectional and transition-to-parenthood studies have shown that noncustodial parents report lower levels of well-being than custodial parents… This work suggests that the stress of not having one’s own children at home and missing out on the pleasures of parenting may outweigh the stress of taking active care of one’s children.
My main disappointment with the state of the literature: There’s still little evidence on the effect of parenting style on parental happiness.
Although a large literature explores the implications of parenting style and parenting behaviors for child outcomes (e.g., Darling & Steinberg, 1993), very few studies examine how parenting style–and an intensive versus relaxed style in particular–might relate to the parents’ own well-being.
Unfortunately, this excellent article will probably get little media attention because it lacks a sensational punchline. But if you really want to know what researchers know about kids and happiness, “The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting” is the piece to read.