The increasing happiness of US parents

Abstract

Previous research suggests that parents may be less happy than non-parents. We critically assess the literature and examine parents’ and non-parents’ happiness-trends using the General Social Survey (N = 42,298) and DDB Lifestyle Survey (N = 75,237). We find that parents are becoming happier over time relative to non-parents, that non-parents’ happiness is declining absolutely, and that estimates of the parental happiness gap are sensitive to the time-period analyzed. These results are consistent across two datasets, most subgroups, and various specifications. Finally, we present evidence that suggests children appear to protect parents against social and economic forces that may be reducing happiness among non-parents.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    A few studies find inconsistent or neutral effects (e.g., Cleary and Mechanic 1983; Gore and Mangione 1983), and a few others find positive effects (e.g., Ross and Huber 1985; Aassve et al. 2009).

  2. 2.

    A recent paper by Hagstrom and Wu (2014 onlinefirst) asks a slightly different question: whether there are happiness differences by pregnancy status. The paper finds that pregnancy results in a happiness increase for white and Hispanic individuals, but not for black individuals (i.e., a neutral association).

  3. 3.

    A noteworthy exception is a recent paper by Myrskyla and Margolis (2014), which provides a detailed discussion of the parent definition.

  4. 4.

    However, it is the case that Margolis and Myrskyla (2011) retain only those parents with children under age 18; thus very few empty-nesters are likely to be included in the sample.

  5. 5.

    The LSS includes a weight, but there is insufficient documentation on how the weight is constructed. Therefore, we conduct the LSS analyses without the weight. Nevertheless, applying the weight does not change the results.

  6. 6.

    If women are more likely than men to gain custody of their children after separation or divorce, then our definition of parent will result in a greater percentage of women being classified as parents than men (35 and 41 % of men and women in our sample are coded as parents, respectively). As discussed in the subgroup analysis in Sect. 4, the main results hold for men and women in both datasets [see Column (3) of Table 6].

  7. 7.

    It is worth noting that empty-nest parents are a distinct population from full-nest parents. Compared to full-nest parents, empty-nest parents are generally in a different stage of life and have variant household compositions and economic circumstances. Thus, empty-nest parents are often studied in stand-alone papers.

  8. 8.

    265 respondents in the GSS did not report the number of children living in their household, and thus, cannot be categorized as a parent or non-parent; these respondents are dropped from all future analyses.

  9. 9.

    All results are robust to dropping observations with missing data.

  10. 10.

    This could be the result of the more compressed response-scale in the GSS: there are three possible responses to the GSS happiness question and seven possible responses to the LSS life-satisfaction question.

  11. 11.

    One potential explanation for the compositional changes in the population of parents and non-parents is the second demographic transition.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to thank seminar participants at the WEAI annual meeting (San Diego), APPAM, and PAA as well as Rafael Di Tella, Richard Easterlin, Ori Heffetz, John Helliwell, Andrew Oswald, Stephen Wu, and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions. All opinions and errors are those of the authors. The authors contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to Chris M. Herbst.

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Herbst, C.M., Ifcher, J. The increasing happiness of US parents. Rev Econ Household 14, 529–551 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-015-9302-0

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Keywords

  • Parents
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction
  • Subjective well-being
  • General Social Survey (GSS)
  • DDB Lifestyle Survey (LSS)

JEL Classification

  • D60
  • D10