Parenthood and Happiness: a Review of Folk Theories Versus Empirical Evidence

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In people’s minds (i.e., folk theory), global well-being is more likely referred to as happiness, hence the title.

  2. 2.

    This study only records children in the home, which means that childless persons also include people who are parents but do not live with their children. This group of parents, usually men, may report relatively low well-being (e.g., Shields and Wooden 2003). Hence, the positive effect of parenthood is likely inflated for men.

  3. 3.

    Whereas U.S. reviews conclude that parents are never better off than non-parents on any of the conventional measures of subjective well-being (McLanahan and Adams 1987; Mirowsky and Ross 2003), an opposite conclusion seems apparent in the Nordic literature.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Britt Slagsvold, Gunhild Hagestad, and Annemette Sørensen for valuable comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Thomas Hansen.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 2.

Table 2 Overview of studies and results (unstandardized regression coefficients)

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Hansen, T. Parenthood and Happiness: a Review of Folk Theories Versus Empirical Evidence. Soc Indic Res 108, 29–64 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-011-9865-y

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Keywords

  • Life satisfaction
  • Happiness
  • Children
  • Parenthood
  • Parental status
  • Childlessness
  • Literature review