I’m a new father this year and when I decided to explore the intersection between relationships and happiness I knew I wanted to see what the research found on how children affect our happiness.
I’ve read a lot of research on children this year, but pretty much all of it had to do with best practices in raising them. Now I wanted to see the impact that children have on adults.
Do kids make us happier?
I could wax poetic about my own experience, but if you’ve been here before you know I’d rather dive into the data. We’re all biased when it comes to our own experiences, but aggregated data is less biased.
So what does the data say? Do kids make us happier?
Well…It depends on how you define happy.
And where you live.
What is Happiness?
First, we need to revisit the two measures of happiness that we explored in studying the intersection of money and happiness.
First, there is “subjective well-being,” which is essentially your moment-to-moment happiness. If someone stopped you at a random point in your day and asked if you were happy right then, they would be asking about this measure of happiness.
The other measure is life evaluation or life satisfaction. This is basically big picture happiness. If someone asked you to think back on your life (or your year or even the last week) and tell them how happy you are, they would be asking about this measure of happiness.
Just like with money, the findings on happiness and relationships differ depending on which measure you use.
Meaning Versus Time and Money
In general, life evaluation is about the same between parents and non-parents.
Kids add meaning to your life, but they also take up a lot of time. You’re spending less time on leisure and more on housework, errands, and actual child care.
Plus, kids add a huge financial strain to most people’s lives. As one study put it, “becoming a parent would lead to an increase in life satisfaction if only raising children didn’t take so much time and money.”
So when people tell you that their kids have brought so much more meaning into their lives, believe them. But don’t think that they’re happier than you by virtue of that fact.
The other measure of happiness is subjective well-being, or moment-to-moment happiness.
I expected this to find that parents are less happy than non-parents. And they are…in the United States.
But the stats differ from country to country. A lot of countries have much happier parents than the U.S.
American Parents are Less Happy
There is a surprisingly large variation in parental happiness from country to country. After running all sorts of analyses, what researchers have found is that the gap is “entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.”
Countries that make it easier to balance work and family have happier parents. Full stop.
The two policies with the biggest impact were subsidized child care and the total number of government mandated paid sick and vacation days. When child care is affordable and parents can take days off to be with their kids, everyone is happier.
And I literally mean everyone. Even non-parents are happier in those more generous countries. The additional sick and vacation days increase the happiness of non-parents far more than the increased taxes necessary to cover the added benefits.
The U.S. is far behind other advanced nations on both subsidized child care and mandated paid leave. As such, parents in the United States are less happy than parents in any other advanced nation.
The Politics of Happiness
The best approach to correcting this would be on a policy level.
We should be advocating for government subsidized child care and mandatory paid sick and vacation leave.
A smaller boost to happiness, but a powerful one in the short term (and one with lots of other reasons to support it) is paid parental leave after birth. It is absolutely absurd that the United States has not joined every other advanced nation in the world in mandating paid maternity leave.
These are obvious policies that should be advanced and, according to the data, will make the entire country happier even if taxes need to go up to pay for them.
While we’re advocating for those changes, though, we need to address the negatives of parenthood on our own.
The biggest happiness detriments are from the loss of time and money. While there isn’t much we can do about time, we can do something about our financial situation.
Plan ahead. Get your financial house in order. If necessary, find ways to free up more cash. It’s still stressful paying for daycare, but I can’t imagine the stress it would add if we had been living paycheck-to-paycheck before the baby was born.
Try to find a workplace with good policies and/or advocate for expansion of parent-friendly policies at your workplace. While it would be best if the government mandated paid sick and vacation days, it may be easier to get a group of co-workers together and convince your employer to do it without a mandate.
There are some good employers out there that offer parent-friendly policies. If you’re looking for a happier life, it may be worth trying to find one, even if it means taking a pay cut.
Look around, weigh your options, and figure out what works best for your family. We know how to be happy parents, but we need to put in the work to make it happen.
Join the Conversation!
Are you surprised by these findings? What are your personal experiences with children and happiness? Do you have any tips and tricks for being happier with kids? Let us know in the comments!