European Journal of Population

, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 263–290 | Cite as

The Estimation of Fertility Effects on Happiness: Even More Difficult than Usually Acknowledged

  • Øystein KravdalEmail author


There have been many studies of how the number of children in a family affects the parents’ or the children’s lives. One strand of this research focuses on the implications of fertility for the parents’ level of self-reported well-being or happiness. It is argued in this paper that an overall “happiness effect” is not very informative because of the presumably large variation in individuals’ perceived gains from having children. Furthermore, it is explained that such an effect would be difficult to estimate. Most importantly, the highly varying ideas about how a child will affect life quality are important for the decision about whether to have a child. Many of those who have few or no children have chosen this because they think their life will be best this way, and their happiness therefore tells us little about how happy their more fertile counterparts—who to a large extent have different views about the consequences of childbearing—would have been if they had few or no children. This estimation problem that arises when effects of a certain event (here childbearing) are heterogeneous, and the individuals who experience that event tend to be among those for whom the effects are particularly positive or negative, is acknowledged in the treatment effect literature. However, there is little consciousness about it in the fertility–happiness research. In addition, there is a more “standard” selection problem: factors with implications for childbearing desires, or for the chance of fulfilling these, may also affect or be linked to happiness for other reasons. Unfortunately, even the most advanced statistical approaches that have been used in this research area fail to handle all these problems, so reported results should be interpreted very cautiously.


Fertility Happiness Heterogeneity Method Reflection Selection Subjective Well-being 



The very helpful and insightful comments from Wendy Sigle-Rushton, Torkild Lyngstad, Mikko Myrskylä and two reviewers are greatly appreciated. The study is part of a project on consequences of high fertility funded by the Norwegian Research Council and the Hewlett Foundation and of the FAMHEALTH ERC Advanced Grant project.


  1. Aassve, A., Goisis, A., & Sironi, M. (2012). Happiness and childbearing across Europe. Social Indicators Research, 108(1), 65–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aassve, A., Mazzuco, S., & Mencarini, L. (2006). An empirical investigation into the effect of childbearing on economic wellbeing in Europe. Statistical Methods and Applications, 15(2), 209–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Angeles, L. (2010). Children and life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(4), 523–538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Angrist, J. D., Lavy, V., & Schlosser, A. (2010). Multiple experiments for the causal link between the quantity and quality of children. Journal of Labor Economics, 28(4), 773–824.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Angrist, J. D., & Pischke, J.-S. (2009). Mostly harmless econometrics: An empiricists’ companion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Åslund, O., & Grönqvist, H. (2010). Family size and child outcomes: Is there really no trade-off? Labour Economics, 17(1), 130–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bittman, M., & Wajcman, J. (2000). The rush hour: The character of leisure time and gender equity. Social Forces, 79(1), 165–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Black, S. E., Devereux, P. J., & Salvanes, K. G. (2005). The more the merrier? The effects of family size and birth order on children’s education. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 120(2), 669–700.Google Scholar
  9. Blake, D., & Mayhew, L. (2006). On the sustainability of the UK state pension system in the light of the population ageing and declining fertility. The Economic Journal, 116(512), F286–F305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Blundell, R., Dearden, L., & Sianesi, B. (2005). Evaluating the effect of education on earnings: Models, methods, and results from the National Child Development Survey. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, 168(3), 473–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Boushey, H. (2008). “Opting out?” The effect of children on women’s employment in the United States. Feminist Economics, 14(1), 1–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Brandt, M., Haberkern, K., & Szydlik, M. (2009). Intergenerational help and care in Europe. European Sociological Review, 25(5), 585–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Britt, K., Ashworth, A., & Smalley, M. (2007). Pregnancy and the risk of breast cancer. Review of Endocrine-Related Cancer, 14, 907–933.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bühler, C. (2008). On the structural value of children and its implication on intended fertility in Bulgaria. Demographic Research, 18, 569–610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Clark, A. E., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. The Economic Journal, 118(529), F222–F243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Conley, D., & Glauber, R. (2006). Parental educational investment and children’s academic risk: Estimates of the impact of sibship size and birth order from exogenous variation in fertility. Journal of Human Resources, 41(4), 722–737.Google Scholar
  17. De Haan, M. (2010). Birth order, family size and educational attainment. Economics of Education Review, 29(4), 576–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dommermuth, L., & Kitterød, H. R. (2009). Fathers’ employment in a father-friendly welfare state: Does fatherhood affect men’s working hours? Community, Work & Family, 12(4), 417–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dørheim, S. K., Bondevik, G. T., Eberhard-Gran, M., & Bjorvatn, B. (2009). Sleep and depression in postpartum women: A population-based study. Sleep, 32(7), 847–855.Google Scholar
  20. Dormont, B., Grignon, M., & Huber, H. (2006). Health expenditure growth: Reassessing the threat of ageing. Health Economics, 15(9), 947–963.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Downey, D. B., & Condron, D. J. (2004). Playing well with others in kindergarten: The benefit of siblings at home. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(2), 333–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eibach, R. P., & Mock, S. E. (2011). Idealizing parenthood to rationalize parental investments. Psychological Science, 22(2), 203–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Evenson, R. J., & Simon, R. W. (2005). Clarifying the relationship between parenthood and depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 46(4), 341–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Frijters, P., Haisken-DeNew, J. P., & Shields, M. A. (2004). Money does matter! Evidence from increasing real income and life satisfaction in East Germany following reunification. American Economic Review, 94, 730–740.Google Scholar
  25. Fletcher, B., Gulanick, M., & Lamendola, C. (2002). Risk factors for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 16(2), 17–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Goux, D., & Maurin, E. (2005). The effect of overcrowded housing on children’s performance at school. Journal of Public Economics, 89(5–6), 797–819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grundy, E., & Kravdal, Ø. (2010). Fertility history and cause-specific mortality: A register-based analysis of complete cohorts of Norwegian women and men. Social Science and Medicine, 70(11), 1847–1857.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Haller, M., & Hadler, M. (2006). How social relations and structures can produce happiness and unhappiness: An international comparative analysis. Social Indicators Research, 75(2), 169–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: A review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indicators Research, 108(1), 29–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Haybron, D. M. (2003). What do we want from a theory of happiness? Metaphilosophy, 34(3), 305–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Headey, D. K., & Hodge, A. (2009). The effect of population growth on economic growth: A meta-regression analysis of the macroeconomic literature. Population and Development Review, 35(2), 221–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Imbens, G. W., & Angrist, J. D. (1994). Identification and estimation of local average treatment effects. Econometrica, 62, 467–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Joutsenniemi, K., Martelin, T., Kestilä, L., Martikainen, P., Pirkola, S., & Koskinen, S. (2007). Living arrangements, heavy drinking and alcohol dependence. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 42(5), 480–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Keizer, R., Dykstra, P. A., & Poortman, A. R. (2010). The transition to parenthood and well-being: The impact of partner status and work hour transitions. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(4), 429–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kendig, H., Dykstra, P. A., van Gaalen, R. I., & Melkas, T. (2007). Health of aging parents and childless individuals. Journal of Family Issues, 28(11), 1457–1486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Knoester, C., & Eggebeen, D. J. (2006). The effects of the transition to parenthood and subsequent children on men’s well-being and social participation. Journal of Family Issues, 27(11), 1532–1560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kohler, H. P., Behrman, J. R., & Skytthe, A. (2005). Partner + children = happiness? The effects of partnerships and fertility on well-being. Population and Development Review, 31(3), 407–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kravdal, Ø., Kodzi, I., & Sigle-Rushton, W. (2013). Education in sub-Saharan Africa: A new look at the effects of number of siblings. Studies in Family Planning, 44(3), 275–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Li, H., Zhang, J., & Zhu, Y. (2008). The quantity-quality trade-off of children in a developing country: Identification using Chinese twins. Demography, 45(1), 223–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maralani, V. (2008). The changing relationship between family size and educational attainment over the course of socioeconomic development: Evidence from Indonesia. Demography, 45(3), 693–717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Margolis, R., & Myrskylä, M. (2011). A global perspective on happiness and fertility. Population and Development Review, 37(1), 29–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McQuillan, K. (2004). When does religion influence fertility? Population and Development Review, 30(1), 25–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Myrskylä, M., & Margolis, R. (2012). Happiness: Before and after the kids. MPIDR Working Paper WP 2012-013. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock.Google Scholar
  44. Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., English, T., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 24(1), 3–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Newman, L. (2008). How parenthood experiences influence desire for more children in Australia: A qualitative study. Journal of Population Research, 25(1), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nomaguchi, K. N., & Milkie, M. A. (2004). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 356–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. O’Neill, B. C., Dalton, M., Fuchs, R., Jiang, L., Pachauri, S., & Zigova, K. (2010). Global demographic trends and future carbon emissions. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107, 17521–17526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Panayoutou, T. (1994). Population, environment, and development nexus. In R. Cassen (Ed.), Population and development: Old debates, new conclusions (pp. 149–180). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  49. Poortman, A. R., & Van Der Lippe, T. (2009). Attitudes toward housework and child care and the gendered division of labor. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 71(3), 526–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rand. (2004). Low fertility and population ageing. Causes, consequences and policy options. Prepared for the European Commission. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.Google Scholar
  51. Rieck, G., & Fiander, A. (2006). The effect of lifestyle factors on gynaecological cancer. Best Practice and Research: Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 20(2), 227–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Rosenzweig, M. R., & Zhang, J. (2009). Do population control policies induce more human capital investments? Twins, birth weight and China’s “one-child” policy. Review of Economic Studies, 76(3), 1149–1174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Russo, I. H., & Russo, J. (2007). Primary prevention of breast cancer by hormone-induced differentiation. Recent Results in Cancer Research, 174, 111–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sobotka, T., Skirbekk, V., & Philipov, D. (2011). Economic recession and fertility in the developed world. Population and Development Review, 37(2), 267–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Soons, J. P. M., Liefbroer, A. C., & Kalmijn, M. (2009). The long-term consequences of relationship formation for subjective well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(5), 1254–1270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Stanca, L. (2012). Suffer the little children: Measuring the effects of parenthood on well-being worldwide. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 81(3), 742–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 574–583.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Umberson, D., Pudrovska, T., & Reczek, C. (2010). Parenthood, childlessness, and well-being: A life course perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 612–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Vanassche, S., Swicegood, G., & Matthijs, K. (2013). Marriage and children as a key to happiness? Cross-national differences in the effects of marital status and children on well- being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 501–524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wenger, G. C., Dykstra, P. A., Melkas, T., & Knipscheer, K. C. M. (2007). Social embeddedness and late-life parenthood—community activity, close ties, and support networks. Journal of Family Issues, 28(11), 1419–1456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. White, M. P., & Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the richness of daily activities. Psychological Science, 20(8), 1000–1008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Xie, Y., Brand, J. E., & Jann, B. (2012). Estimating heterogenous treatment effects with observational data. Sociological Methodology, 42(1), 314–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Zimmermann, A., & Easterlin, R. A. (2006). Happily ever after? Cohabitation, marriage, divorce and happiness in Germany. Population and Development Review, 32(3), 511–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

Personalised recommendations