Adults report being less satisfied with their lives when they have children and those with stepchildren are even less happy, finds new research that looks at adult wellbeing across more than 30 European countries.
The happiest adults, according to the study: single ones who live with a partner but no kids.
For years, smaller studies had found that the presence of children is associated with diminished wellbeing for adults or that there is no relationship between having children and life satisfaction. Curious to know why, professors David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics decided to take a closer look.
“That’s one of the big puzzles that’s been in the literature forever,” Blanchflower told Journalist’s Resource by phone. He was one of the researchers who had studied the issue in the United States and Great Britain in previous years.
In prior research, “we showed that kids make people unhappy and I think it never made sense,” he explained. “If you had one kid and it made you unhappy, why keep having them?”
Blanchflower and Clark devised a new study involving more than 1 million people in all 28 countries of the European Union as well as Albania, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkish Cypress and Turkey. Their study, “Children, Unhappiness and Family Finances: Evidence from One Million Europeans,” is the largest to date to examine the issue. The National Bureau of Economic Research released it in February 2019 as part of its working paper series.
As part of their research, Blanchflower and Clark analyzed the results of 35 Eurobarometer surveys, which are conducted via face-to-face interviews, between 2009 and 2018. The scholars looked at how adults in these various countries rated their life satisfaction and difficulty paying their bills. They also looked at data for adults who were married, divorced, widowed and single and those who had children or stepchildren or lived in childless households.
The two scholars found that when they took finances out of the equation — when they devised a statistical model that controlled for financial difficulties — children were actually associated with higher levels of happiness.
The key takeaway, says Blanchflower: the high expense of raising children is probably a big reason why adults who live with kids report lower rates of life satisfaction.
“Obviously, the cost is really high,” he said. “Kids are great, but they’re expensive and people worry about paying the bills.”
He said he’s confident his findings apply to adults in the U.S.
“Almost every result [from studies in previous years] that I’ve talked about in Europe equally applies to the United States,” Blanchflower said.
Here are some of this new study’s other findings:
- Overall, about 39 percent of the adults surveyed said they have children at home.
- After controlling for financial difficulties, the authors found that the parents of younger children — those younger than age 10 — are happier than parents of kids ages 10 or older. Across countries, it seems that “younger children make their parents happy, but teenagers rather less so,” Blanchflower and Clark write.
- Even when the scholars controlled for financial difficulties, adults still were less happy if they lived with stepchildren than if they only lived with their own children. “Parents with children from a previous relationship systematically report lower life satisfaction,” they write. They do not speculate as to why stepkids might be associated with lower levels of life satisfaction. They do note, however, that separation and divorce generally are associated with lower wellbeing and that “separation and divorce may continue to play a role in the longer run via the presence of step-children.”
- With finances removed from the picture, kids appear to make married life better. “Having children raises the happiness of married people compared to those who have no kids,” the authors write.
Looking for more research on families? Read what the research says about kids with working moms and how family separation policies affect children. Also, check out our summaries of studies that focus on stay-at-home dads, parents’ refusal to vaccinate children and child abduction by family members.