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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
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).
A noteworthy exception is a recent paper by Myrskyla and Margolis (2014), which provides a detailed discussion of the parent definition.
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
All results are robust to dropping observations with missing data.
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.
One potential explanation for the compositional changes in the population of parents and non-parents is the second demographic transition.
Aassve, A., Goisis, A., & Sironi, M. (2009). Happiness and childbearing across Europe. Working Paper No. 10. Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics.
Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & McCulloch, R. (2004). Inequality and happiness: Are European and Americans different? Journal of Public Economics, 88, 2009–2042.
Aneshensel, C. S., Frerichs, R. R., & Clark, V. A. (1981). Family roles and sex differences in depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 22, 379–393.
Barnett, R. C., & Baruch, G. K. (1985). Women’s involvement in multiple roles and psychological distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 135–145.
Bird, C., & Roger, M. (1998). Parenting and depression: The impact of the division of labor within coupes and perceptions of equity. PSTC Working Paper No. 98-09. Population Studies and Training Center. Providence, RI: Brown University.
Blackstone, A., & Stewart, M. D. (2012). Choosing to be childfree: Research on the decision not to parent. Sociology Compass, 6(9), 718–727.
Blanchflower, D. (2008). International evidence on subjective well-being. NBER Working Paper No. 14318.
Blanchflower, D., & Oswald, A. (2004). Well-being over time in Britain and the USA. Journal of Public Economics, 88, 1359–1386.
Clark, A. (2006). Born to be mild? Cohort effects don’t explain why well-being is U-shaped in age. Working paper 2006-35, Paris-Jourdan Sciences Economiques.
Clark, A., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R. (2008a). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. The Economic Journal, 118, F222–F243.
Clark, A., Frijters, P., & Shields, M. (2008b). Relative income, happiness, and utility: An explanation for the Easterlin paradox and other puzzles. Journal of Economic Literature, 46, 95–144.
Cleary, P. D., & Mechanic, D. (1983). Sex differences in psychological distress among married people. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24, 111–121.
Di Tella, R., MacCulloch, R., & Oswald, A. J. (2001). Preferences over inflation and unemployment: Evidence from surveys of happiness. American Economic Review, 91, 335–341.
Di Tella, R., MacCulloch, R., & Oswald, A. J. (2003). The macroeconomics of happiness. Review of Economics and Statistics, 85, 809–827.
Dillman, D., Sangster, R., Tarnai, J., & Rockwood, T. (1996). Understanding differences in people’s answers to telephone and mail surveys. New Directions for Evaluation, 70, 45–61.
Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, 94–122.
Evenson, R., & Simon, R. (2005). Clarifying the relationship between parenthood and depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 46, 341–358.
Frey, B., & Stutzer, A. (2006). Does marriage make people happy or do happy people get married? The Journal of Socio-Economics, 35, 326–347.
Gallagher, S. K., & Gerstel, N. (2001). Connections and constraints: The effects of children on caregiving. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 265–275.
Glenn, N. D., & McLanahan, S. (1981). The effects of children on the psychological well-being of older adults. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 43, 409–421.
Glenn, N. D., & McLanahan, S. (1982). Children and marital happiness: A further specification of the relationship. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 44, 63–72.
Glenn, N. D., & Weaver, C. (1978). A multi-variate, multisurvey study of marital happiness. Journal of Marriage and Family, 40, 269–281.
Glenn, N. D., & Weaver, C. (1979). A note on family situation and global happiness. Social Forces, 57, 269–282.
Gore, S., & Mangione, T. W. (1983). Social roles, sex roles, and psychological distress: Additive and interactive models of sex differences. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24, 300–312.
Groeneman, S. (1994). Multi-purpose household panels and general samples: How similar and how different? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Public opinion Research. Danvers, MA.
Grossbard, S., & Mukhopadhyay, S. (2013). Children, spousal love, and happiness: An economic analysis. Review of Economics of the Household, 11, 447–467.
Hagstrom, P., & Wu, S. (2014 onlinefirst). Are pregnant women happier? Racial and ethnic differences in the relatipnship between pregnancy and life satisfaction in the United States. Review of Economics of the Household.
Hansen, T. (2011). Parenthood and happiness: A review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indicators Research, 123, 1–36.
Hansen, T., Slagsvold, B., & Moun, T. (2009). Childlessness and psychological well-being in midlife and old age: An examination of parental status effects across a range of outcomes. Social Indicators Research, 94, 343–362.
Helliwell, J., & Wang, S. (2011). Weekends and subjective well-being. NBER Working Paper No. 17180.
Herbst, C. M. (2011). ‘Paradoxical’ decline? Another look at the relative reduction in women’s happiness. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32, 773–788.
Herbst, C. M. (2012). Footloose and fancy free? Two decades of single mothers’ subjective well-being. Social Service Review, 86, 189–222.
Ifcher, J., & Zarghamee, H. (2014). Trends in the happiness of single mothers: Evidence from the General Social Survey. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15, 1219–1238.
Kahneman, D., Krueger, A., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776–1780.
Kohler, H.-P., Behrman, J., & Skytthe, A. (2005). Partner + children = happiness? The effects of partnerships and fertility on well-being. Population and Development Review, 31, 407–445.
Koropeckyj-Cox, T., & Call, V. R. (2007). Characteristics of older childless persons and parents cross-national comparisons. Journal of Family Issues, 28, 1362–1414.
Kravdal, Ø. (2014). The estimation of fertility effects on happiness: Even more difficult than usually acknowledged. European Journal of Population, 30, 263–290.
Lavee, Y., Sharlin, S., & Katz, R. (1996). The effect of parenting stress on marital quality: An integrated mother–father model. Journal of Family Issues, 17, 114–135.
MacDermid, S. M., Huston, T. L., & McHale, S. M. (1990). Changes in marriage associated with the transition to parenthood: Individual differences as a function of sex-role attitudes and changes in the division of household labor. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 475–486.
Margolis, R., & Myrskyla, M. (2011). A global perspective on happiness and fertility. Population and Development Review, 37, 29–56.
Mathews T. J., & Hamilton B. E. (2009). Delayed childbearing: More women are having their first child later in life. NCHS data brief, no 21. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
McLanahan, S., & Adams, J. (1987). Parenthood and psychological well-being. Annual Review of Sociology, 13, 237–257.
McLanahan, S., & Adams, J. (1989). The effects of children on adults’ psychological well-being: 1957–1976. Social Forces, 68, 124–146.
Menaghan, E. (1982). Assessing the impact of family transitions on marital experience. In H. I. McCubbin, A. E. Cauble, & J. M. Patterson (Eds.), Family stress, coping, and social support (pp. 90–108). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Myrskyla, M., & Margolis, R. (2014). Happiness: Before and after the kids. Demography, 51, 1843–1866.
Nomaguchi, K., & Milkie, M. (2003). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65, 356–374.
Pearlin, L. (1974). Sex roles and depression. In N. Datan & L. Ginsberg (Eds.), Life span developmental psychology: Normative life crises (pp. 191–207). New York, NY: Academic Press.
Pew Research Center. (2010). The decline of marriage and rise of new families. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Putnam, R., & Yonish, S. (1999). How important is response rate? An evaluation of a “mail panel” survey archive. Working Paper. Cambridge: MA: JFK School of Government, Harvard University.
Ross, C. E., & Huber, J. (1985). Hardship and depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 26, 312–327.
Ross, C. E., Mirowsky, J., & Goldsteen, K. (1990). The impact of the family on health: The decade in review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 1059–1078.
Schuman, H., & Presser, S. (1981). Questions and answers in attitude surveys: Experiments on question form, wording, and context. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Simon, R. W. (1998). Assessing sex differences in vulnerability among employed parents: The importance of marital status. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 39, 38–54.
Sousa-Poza, A., & Sousa-Poza, A. A. (2003). Gender differences in job satisfaction in Great Britain, 1991-2000: Permanent or transitory? Applied Economics Letters, 10, 691–694.
Stanca, L. (2012). Suffer the little children: Measuring the effect of parenthood on well-being worldwide. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 81, 742–750.
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2008). Happiness inequality in the United States. Journal of Legal Studies, 37, S33–S79.
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2009). The paradox of declining female happiness. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1, 190–225.
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2010). Subjective and objective indicators of racial progress. Working paper.
Twenge, J., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic. New York, NY: Free Press.
Umberson, D., & Gove, W. (1989). Parenthood and psychological well-being: Theory, measurement, and stage in the family life course. Journal of Family Issues, 10, 440–462.
Umberson, D., & Williams, K. (1999). Family Status and mental health. In C. S. Aneshensel & J. C. Phelan (Eds.), Handbook of the sociology of mental health (pp. 225–253). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Life satisfaction
- Subjective well-being
- General Social Survey (GSS)
- DDB Lifestyle Survey (LSS)