Parenthood and Happiness: a Review of Folk Theories Versus Empirical Evidence
- 5.6k Downloads
This paper reviews and compares folk theories and empirical evidence about the influence of parenthood on happiness and life satisfaction. The review of attitudes toward parenthood and childlessness reveals that people tend to believe that parenthood is central to a meaningful and fulfilling life, and that the lives of childless people are emptier, less rewarding, and lonelier, than the lives of parents. Most cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence suggest, however, that people are better off without having children. It is mainly children living at home that interfere with well-being, particularly among women, singles, lower socioeconomic strata, and people residing in less pronatalist societies—especially when these characteristics are combined. The discrepancy between beliefs and findings is discussed in relation to the various costs of parenting; the advantages of childlessness; adaptation and compensation among involuntarily childless persons; cognitive biases; and the possibility that parenthood confers rewards in terms of meaning rather than happiness.
KeywordsLife satisfaction Happiness Children Parenthood Parental status Childlessness Literature review
I thank Britt Slagsvold, Gunhild Hagestad, and Annemette Sørensen for valuable comments and suggestions.
- Aassve, A., Goisis, A., & Sironi, M. (2009). Happiness and childbearing across Europe, Working paper no. 10. Milan, Italy: University of Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics.Google Scholar
- Azarow, J. (2003). Generativity and well-being: An investigation of the Eriksonian hypothesis. Dissertation. Northwestern University.Google Scholar
- Basten, S. (2009a). Pets and the “need to nurture”. The future of human reproduction, working paper #3. University of Oxford.Google Scholar
- Basten, S. (2009b). Voluntary childlessness and being childfree: The future of human reproduction, working paper #5. University of Oxford.Google Scholar
- Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
- Becchetti, L., Ricca, E., & Pelloni, A. (2010). Children, happiness and taxation. SOEP working paper no. 230. Berlin: DIW.Google Scholar
- Bernhardt, E., & Fratczak, E. (2005). Family status and subjective well-being: Comparing Poland and Sweden, IUSSP conference. France: Tours.Google Scholar
- Bielenksi, H., Borssch, G., & Wagner, A. (2002). Working time preferences in sixteen European countries. Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.Google Scholar
- Billari, F. C. (2009). The happiness commonality: Fertility decisions in low-fertility settings, how generations and gender shape demographic change: Towards policies based on better knowledge (pp. 7–31). New York: United Nations.Google Scholar
- Callan, V. J., & Noller, P. (1987). Marriage and the family. North Ryde: Methuen Australia.Google Scholar
- Campell, A., Converse, P. E., & Rodgers, W. L. (1976). The quality of American life: Perceptions, evaluations, and satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
- Chang, E. (2008). Childlessness and psychological well-being across the life course as manifested in significant life events. Dissertation. University of Southern California.Google Scholar
- Clark, A. (2007). Born to be mild? Cohort effects don’t (fully) explain why well-being is U-shaped in age. Paris School of Economics and IZA.Google Scholar
- Clark, A., & Georgellis, Y. (2010). Back to baseline in Britain: Adaptation in the BHPS, PSE working paper no. 02. Paris school of economics.Google Scholar
- Connidis, I. A. (2001). Family ties and aging. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
- Cowan, P., & Cowan, C. (2000). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
- de Vaus, D. (2002). Marriage and mental health. Family Matters, 62, 26–32.Google Scholar
- Dockery, A. M. (2010). Happiness, life satisfaction and the role of work: Evidence from two Australian surveys. School of economics and finance working paper no. 3. Curtin Business School, Perth.Google Scholar
- Easterlin, R. (2005). Building a better theory of well-being. In L. Bruni & P. Porta (Eds.), Economics and happiness. Reality and paradoxes. Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
- Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Eysenck, M. W. (1994). Happiness: Facts and myths. London: LEA.Google Scholar
- Flood, L. (1997). Household, market, and nonmarket activities. Procedures and codes for the 1993 time-use survey (Vol. VI). Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, Department of Economics.Google Scholar
- Fokkema, T., & Esveldt, I. (2008). Motivation to have children in Europe. In C. Höhn, D. Avramov, & I. Kotowska (Eds.), People, population change and policies: Lessons from the population policy acceptance study (pp. 141–155). Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
- Frijters, P., Johnston, D. W., & Shields, M. (2010). Happiness dynamics with quartely life event data. Scandinavian Journal of Economics (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
- Hakim, C. (2003). Work-lifestyle choices in the 21st century: Preference theory. Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
- Halle, T. (2002). Charting parenthood: A statistical portrait of fathers and mothers in America. Washington, DC: Child Trends.Google Scholar
- Hansen, T. (2010). Subjective well-being in the second half of life: The influence of family and household resources. Dissertation. University of Oslo, Faculty of Medicine.Google Scholar
- Inglehart, R., M., B., Diez-Medrano, J., Halman, L., & Luijkx, R. (2004). Human beliefs and values: A cross-cultural sourcebook based on the 1999–2002 values survey. México Siglo XXI Editores.Google Scholar
- ISER. (2010). BHPS documentation and questionnaires. http://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/survey/bhps/documentation/volb/wave8/hindresp12.html. Accessed 16 July 2010.
- ISSP. (2002). Family and changing gender roles. http://www.pineforge.com/mssw3/resources/issp/issp_Codebook.pdf. Accessed 25 May 2010.
- Juster, F. T. (1985). Time, goods, and well-being. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.Google Scholar
- Kerkhofs, J. (1999). Values in Russia: An introduction. In K. Malfliet (Ed.), Russia and Europe in a changing environment (pp. 49–70). Leuven, Belgium: University Press.Google Scholar
- Koropeckyj-Cox, T., Pienta, A. M., & Brown, T. H. (2007). Women of the 1950s and the “normative” life course: The implications of childlessness, fertility timing, and marital status for psychological well-being in late midlife. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 64(4), 299–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Lyubomirsky, S., & Boehm, J. K. (2010). Human motives, happiness, and the puzzle of parenthood. Perspectives on Psychological Science (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Margolis, R., & Myrskyla. (2010). A global perspective on happiness and fertility. MPIDR Working paper. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.Google Scholar
- Mastekaasa, A. (1994). Marital status, distress, and well-being: An international comparison. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 25(2), 183–205.Google Scholar
- McLanahan, S., & Adams, J. (1989). The effects of children on adults psychological well-being: 1957–1976. Social Forces, 68(1), 124–146.Google Scholar
- Mirowsky, J., & Ross, C. E. (2003). Social causes of psychological distress (2nd ed.). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
- Myers, S. M. (1997). Marital uncertainty and childbearing. Social Forces, 75(4), 1271–1289.Google Scholar
- NSD. (2002). Spørreundersøkelse om familie og kjønnsroller [ISSP survey on family and gender roles]. http://tinyurl.com/ydadt4h. Accessed 2 May 2010.
- Obradovic, J., & Cudina-Obradovic, M. (2001). Number of children in the family as a predictor of parents’ life satisfaction. Drustvena Istrazivanja, 10(4–5), 685–707.Google Scholar
- Ray, R., Gornick, J. C., & Schmitt, J. (2009). Parental leave policies in 21 countries: Assessing generosity and gender equality. Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research.Google Scholar
- Save the children. (2010). Women on the front lines of health care. http://www.savethechildren.org/publications/state-of-the-worlds-mothers-report/SOWM-2010-Women-on-the-Front-Lines-of-Health-Care.pdf. Accessed 16 June 2010.
- Savolainen, J., Lahelma, E., Silventionen, K., & Gauthier, A. H. (2001). Parenthood and psychological well-being in Finland: Does public policy make a difference? Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 32(1), 61–75.Google Scholar
- Schwartz, N., Kahneman, D., & Xu, J. (2006). Global and episodic reports of hedonic experience. In R. Belli, D. Alwin, & F. Stafford (Eds.), Using calendar and diary methods in life events research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
- Shields, M., & Wooden, M. (2003). Marriage, children and subjective well-being. http://melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/Biblio/cp/conf-p01.pdf. Accessed 13 Feb 2007.
- Sobotka, T. (2004). Childless societies? Trends and projections of childlessness in Europe and the United States. In T. Sobotka (Ed.), Postponement of childbearing and low fertility in Europe (pp. 123–154). Amsterdam: Dutch University Press.Google Scholar
- Stanca, L. (2009). Suffer the little children: Measuring the effect of parenthood on well-being worldwide. Milan: University of Milan Bicocca. Department of Economics.Google Scholar
- Stanley, K., Edwards, L., & Hatch, B. (2003). The family report 2003: Choosing happiness?. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.Google Scholar
- Toulemon, L. (1996). Very few couples remain voluntarily childless. Population, 8, 1–27.Google Scholar
- UN. (2009). Human development report 2009. http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2009_EN_Complete.pdf. Accessed 10 May 2010.
- Van de Kaa, D. J. (2001). Fertility preferences: From changing value orientations to new behavior. Population counsil, 27, 290–331.Google Scholar
- Veenhoven, R. (1975). Is there an innate need for children? European Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 495–501.Google Scholar
- Veenhoven, R. (1996). The study of life satisfaction. In V. E. Saris, R. Veenhoven, A. C. Scherpenzeel, & B. Bunting (Eds.), A comparative study of satisfaction with life in Europe (pp. 11–48). Eötvös: University Press.Google Scholar
- Veroff, J., Douvan, E., & Kulka, R. A. (1981). The inner American: A self-portrait from 1957 to 1976. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
- Wagner, M., Schutze, Y., & Lang, F. R. (1999). Social relationships in old age. In P. B. Baltes & K. U. Mayer (Eds.), The Berlin aging study. Aging from 70 to 100 (pp. 282–301). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar