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Parents’ Happiness Deficit: Must Parents Sacrifice Happiness for Meaning?
AUSTIN TX, June 16, 2016—Over the past decade, numerous studies have found that parents, especially in the United States, report lower levels of happiness than nonparents, despite the fact that they find parenthood meaningful or rewarding in the long run. Parents consistently report lower happiness, mental well-being, and marital satisfaction than do childless couples and individuals.
Is this just the price parents must pay for the long-term rewards of having children? In a remarkable study of 22 countries presented today to the Council on Contemporary Families, researchers find that the parental “happiness penalty” is not universal or unavoidable, and they identify simple strategies that wipe out or even reverse the happiness differential between parents and non-parents.
Happiness penalties vary across 22 countries. “Social Policies, Parenthood, and Happiness in 22 Countries,” a briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Jennifer Glass, University of Texas; Robin Simon, Wake Forest University; and Matthew Andersson, Baylor University, used two well-respected surveys, the International Social Surveys of 2007 and 2008 and the European Social Surveys of 2006 and 2008, and found that the “happiness penalty” varies substantially from country to country, and is not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life. In some countries, such as Norway and Hungary, parents are actually happier than non-parents.
The U.S. has the largest gap. The bad news is that of the 22 countries in the study, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.
Policies make the difference. The researchers investigated possible explanations for the happiness gap, including variations in family size and in the extent of unplanned births. Such differences between countries were not significant in explaining variations in the happiness of parents compared to non-parents.
“What we found was astonishing,” reported Glass, Simon and Andersson. “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy ‘packages’ had no happiness gap between parents and nonparents.”
Helping parents helps childless individuals as well. More specifically,
*The positive effects of good family support policies for parents were not achieved at the expense of non-parents. The policies most helpful to parents also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not.
*Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children.
*Countries with cheaper out-of-pocket costs for child care had happier nonparents as well as parents.
*Another striking finding was that giving money to parents in the form of child allowances or monthly payments had less effect on parental happiness than giving them the tools to combine employment with parenting.
*Gender made little difference: Fathers’ happiness was slightly more sensitive to money policies (child care costs, specifically), and mothers’ happiness was slightly more sensitive to time policies (especially paid sick and vacation days). But these differences were minor.
The new study, according to CCF’s research director Stephanie Coontz, leaves little doubt about the benefits of policies to support working families: “We have reams of research showing that investing in children’s well-being benefits all members of society down the road, in lower crime rates and more productive employees. This study highlights that, even when it comes to personal happiness, supporting working parents is not a zero-sum game.”
A longer version of this peer-reviewed study will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September 2016.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT
Barbara Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts
Executive Director, Council on Contemporary Families
Department of Sociology & Population Research Center
University of Texas – Austin
Professor of Sociology
Wake Forest University
Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course
*Starting this summer, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Baylor University
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at firstname.lastname@example.org, cell 360-556-9223.
June 16, 2016