Many studies suggest that most parents are less happy than their childless peers. However, what these studies may be missing is a subtle nuance. According to new research, parents are happier than non-parents — but only later in life, after their children have moved out of the house.
When children are no longer stressful
Parenting is hard work. I know, what a news flash. And, big surprise, decades-worth of data suggests that parents aren’t exactly the most cheerful bunch — despite folk knowledge saying that having children is the key to a happy, fullfing life.
One study, for instance, looked at the association between parenthood and happiness among participants from 22 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The study found that non-parents had higher levels of life-satisfaction in most industrialized countries.
This all seems to make sense. After all, parents have less money, energy, and free time to spend with friends and pursuing hobbies than their non-parent peers.
However, such studies do not exactly paint the full picture.
Researchers at the Heidelberg University in Germany thought so too. If children are a source of stress that interfere with parents’ well-being, what happens after they become independent and leave the house? They decided to investigate.
The researchers analyzed data from a European survey involving 55,000 people aged 50 and older. Remarkably, in this age group, parents reported greater life satisfaction and less incidence of depression than people without children.
This association was present only if the kids had left home.
The researchers think that the findings can be explained by the fact that grown-up children provide social enrichment without the headaches of child rearing. Their children might also provide care and financial aid. Meanwhile, at a relatively old age, people without children might end up lonely and perhaps regretful of not having kids.
“Taken together, our results suggest that social networks may be important for well-being and mental health in old age. Spouses, partners and children are often the basis of long-lasting social networks, which can provide social support to elderly people. However, different forms of network may have similar effects, as our data especially for male respondents suggests. As discussed above, this might derive from a level of trust and reciprocity implicit in all forms of networks. A remaining limitation of our study is of course that the results are correlational in nature,” the authors concluded in the journal PLOS One.
That’s not all, though. Parenthood and happiness are mitigated by numerous factors — and the country you live in plays a significant role. A study published in the American Journal of Sociology found that the happiness gap between parents and non-parents was the widest in the United States out of all industrialized countries. Meanwhile, parents who lived in places like Norways, Portugal, and Sweden (where there’s paid parental leave and other childcare benefits) were slightly happier than their childless peers — even when the children were still living at home.