SAN FRANCISCO - Having kids may not make us miserable after all.
The conventional wisdom that's developed over the past few decades - based on early research - has said parents are less happy, more depressed and have less-satisfying marriages than their childless counterparts.
But now, two new studies presented as part of the Population Association of America's annual meeting suggest that earlier findings in several studies weren't so clear-cut and may, in fact, be flawed. The newer analyses presented this week use analytical methods based on data from almost 130,000 adults around the globe - including more than 52,000 parents - and the conclusions aren't so grim. They say that parents today may indeed be happier than non-parents and that parental happiness levels - while they do drop - don't dip below the levels they were before having children.
"We find no evidence that parental well-being decreases after a child is born to levels preceding the children, but we find strong evidence that well-being is elevated when people are planning and waiting for the child, and in the year when the child is born," notes the study presented by co-author Mikko Myrskylä of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.
The overall net effect of having children is positive, says the research, which analyzes longitudinal data from British and German parents by following the same individuals in the four to five years before the birth up to four years after the birth. The happiness levels of parents are compared to their own happiness levels before becoming parents.
The other study, of some 120,000 adults from two nationally representative surveys between 1972-2008, finds that parents were indeed less happy than non-parents in the decade 1985-95, but parents from 1995 to 2008 were happier. What's happened, suggests co-author Chris Herbst of Arizona State University, is that happiness among non-parents has declined, thus making parents happier in comparison.
He says the evidence isn't clear as to whether the average parent today is less happy than someone without kids. But he says what's "undeniable, however, is that parents have become relatively happier than non-parents over the past few decades."
Herbst, an assistant professor of public affairs at the school's downtown Phoenix campus, says his research identifies "serious problems with previous work that ought to make people skeptical about the earlier conclusions."
Both studies explain a variety of problems with earlier studies on parental happiness, including the fact that they use cross-sectional research methods that don't take into account individual personality differences. They also often use older data that may not apply to today's parents.
Other findings from the European study suggest that parental characteristics, such as age, make a difference in well-being. Those who become parents at younger ages have a downward happiness trend, while postponing parenthood results in a higher happiness level after the birth. However, co-author Rachel Margolis of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, says the risk of involuntary childlessness increases with age.
"The results are not meant to encourage women to wait to very high ages to have a first birth," she says.
Their study also suggests happiness levels change with each child.
"The first child increases happiness quite a lot. The second child a little. The third not at all," says Myrskylä.