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Childless adults are generally just as happy as parents

The struggle is real.
The struggle is real.
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Ah, Thanksgiving. That magical time of the year when the generations gather and test out all the ways that they can enrage each other. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, all engaged in loud, pointless arguments about Ben Carson and Israel, just as the pilgrims intended. It's as good an occasion as any to wonder: Why have children at all, if they make you this miserable?

There's actually a decent amount of literature on children and happiness, which was well summarized in Jennifer Senior's 2014 book All Joy and No Fun. The issue got a publicity boost this past summer when a study in the journal Demography purported to show that having a child reduces your happiness even more than unemployment, divorce, or the death of a spouse does. That finding's not really credible. It's true that there's generally a small drop in happiness for new parents, or at least new mothers. But it's temporary. "If the claim is that children have a big effect on happiness, there isn't any evidence for that, of any lasting size," Andrew Oswald, a professor at the University of Warwick who studies the economics of happiness, says. "Childless people can be just as happy as people with children."

If you're looking for happiness data to tell you whether you'll enjoy having children, you're likely to end up frustrated.

New parenthood hurts happiness for women — but it's got nothing on unemployment

Clark and Georgellis, 2013

Above is a chart from a 2013 paper by Andrew Clark and Yannis Georgellis that tracks how having a child and the death of a partner affected the life satisfaction of British adults (as measured by asking, "How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?" on a scale of 1 to 7). The British data has the benefit of coming from the British Household Panel Survey, which is a longitudinal survey tracking the same people over time. That lets researchers see how people deviate from their baseline average happiness levels before, during, and after major life events, like childbirth. The results here don't differ too strongly from those found in other longitudinal studies on life satisfaction and childbirth.

The chart shows a slight drop for women after the birth of a child, and no statistically significant change for men. But there's a much larger decline associated with losing a partner, for both genders. People recover from the death of a spouse over time, but the hit incurred at the time of death — and leading up to it, reflecting the fact that these deaths often follow long illnesses — is substantial, and much larger than the drop associated with childbirth. The contrast with unemployment is even more telling. Not only is the drop that Clark and Georgellis find larger than the one for having a child, but men don't adapt to it. Even five years on, they're less happy than they were pre-unemployment. There's more limited data for women, but at least two years along, there's no adaptation:

Clark and Georgellis, 2013

According to the same research, having a child is worse for your happiness than divorce. But that's because divorce is good for your happiness — at least if you're in an unhappy marriage, as tends to be the case in marriages that end in divorce:

Clark and Georgellis, 2013

Both men and women recover to their baseline life satisfaction levels over time. This isn't just Clark and Georgellis's finding; Oswald and his colleague Jonathan Gardner found the same in a widely cited 2005 paper, which concludes, "This study finds that divorce works."

And just to be clear, having a kid isn't worse for you than unemployment or losing a spouse, even though that's what the new study found. Nick Powdthavee, a happiness researcher at the London School of Economics and the University of Melbourne, notes that the average change in well-being reported in the paper "was derived from a raw data that 70 percent of people reported a drop in life satisfaction following having a child. These are raw numbers whereas the effects of, say, loss of partner came from other studies that controlled for other things (e.g. incomes, age, gender, etc.) So they are not comparable by any means."

So the above charts do basic controls for other things that may affect someone's happiness during a major life event. The comparison finding that newborns were worse for happiness than unemployment or widowhood didn't do that.

Kids don't necessarily reduce happiness — even if parents are less happy after having them

One shouldn't conclude from the data above that children cause parents to be less happy. Take another look at the Clark and Georgellis chart on British parents' happiness before and after having a kid:

Clark and Georgellis, 2013

Women are already happier than their baseline before having a child. "Female life satisfaction is significantly higher three years before the birth of a child, and remains high up until birth," Clark and Georgellis write. "After birth, life satisfaction quickly reverts to its baseline level." It's not that having a kid makes women less happy than normal, in other words. They were happier than normal before having a kid, and then go back to normal.

That makes sense, as Hannes Schwandt, an economics professor at the University of Zurich who researches happiness, explained to me. "Especially for the first child, often people decide to have a child when they have a job, when they get married, when they finally settle," he says. "This is usually a time when people are very happy and satisfied with their lives. What happens, after you get settled, after a few years, is maybe life satisfaction goes back to a baseline, and this coincides with having the first child. It might not always be that the child makes you less satisfied, but just the stage of life you're in."

So maybe kids don't throw a wrench into new mothers' previously happy lives. Maybe they were just going to get sadder anyway.

One way around this might be comparing the happiness of parents and non-parents. Oswald notes that studies doing this typically find no difference. A 2010 paper, for instance, compared elderly people with disabilities and found no differences in mental well-being between childless people and parents. But this method is fraught as well. Just as people don't randomly decide when in their lives to have kids, they don't randomly decide whether to have kids. People who like children and think they'll enjoy parenting are more likely to have kids in the first place. So not only are longitudinal studies like the Clark and Georgellis paper tricky, but papers comparing the happiness of parents and non-parents will run into problems as well. "Roughly you're comparing people who want to have children, who have them, with adults who don't want to have children, who don't," Oswald says. "Both people could happier with their life choices. It's not the same as randomly assigning children."

Case in point: A 2002 paper by University of Florida sociologist Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox found little difference in well-being between mothers who had good relationships with at least one of their kids, and women who were childless and expressed favorable attitudes toward being childless. But childless women who said that it would be better to have children were more lonely and depressed — as were women with bad relationships with their kids (Koropeckj-Cox didn't find big differences between childless men and fathers).

Bottom line: The evidence we have suggests having children doesn't affect a person's happiness much one way or another. But that evidence is limited by people selecting into the path they think is best for them. So: If you want to have kids, have kids. If you don't want to have kids, don't have kids. The happiness literature isn't going to make the decision for you.