Having kids increases your life-satisfaction? Yes, if you wanted them

Mike Redmond and his 3-year-old son, Matt, ride a sled down a hill after an overnight snowfall in Baltimore in 2012.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

If you’re wondering if having kids will ruin your life or make it much happier, a new study has this to offer: “It depends.”

“We find that in terms of life evaluation, people with kids and people without kids are not very different,” said Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University. “But people with kids have more joys and happiness as well as more negative emotions, like anger, worry and stress.”

Stone and his co-author, Angus Deaton of Princeton University, are the latest researchers to chime in on the correlation between life-satisfaction and parenting. As they note in a paper published this week in the journal PNAS, the results of previous studies on this topic have often been contradictory -- although many of them have found an association between parenting and a lower sense of well-being.

For this study, Stone and Deaton used data from the ongoing Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index, which has collected information from 1.77 million Americans. In the researchers’ first pass through the data, they found that people most likely to be parents (adults between the ages of 34 and 46 who live with a child under the age of 15) reported a higher sense of life-satisfaction than people in the same age group who did not live with children.


So parents are happier, right? Not so fast. Stone and Deaton also found that the people most likely to be parents were also more likely to be better off financially, married, more religious, healthier and less likely to smoke than those who do not live with children. Since all of these characteristics are associated with a better sense of well-being, the researchers went through the data again, this time controlling for these characteristics.

With the controls in place, they found that people in both groups reported a similar sense of well-being. However, in the paper they also note: “No matter what the controls, children are always associated with both more positive and more negative emotions.”

(That sounds about right).

When the researchers looked at similar data collected by Gallup from countries around the world, they found that in poorer countries with higher fertility rates, being a parent is associated with lower life-satisfaction. They think this is because people in these countries have less control over whether they become parents.

The researchers conclude that in the United States, and other wealthy countries, parenthood is often a deliberate choice. So, if you have children because you wanted children, you are likely just as satisfied with your life as a friend who does not have children because he or she did not want to have them.

“A lot of people start out thinking that having children must make people happy,” Stone said.” After all, the species needs it to continue. But there is no reason to think that people who decide to have children are any happier than people who decide not to have children.

“It’s like apples and oranges and I wouldn’t think that people who like apples are any happier than people who like oranges.”

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