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Well-Being Contagion in the Family: Transmission of Happiness and Distress Between Parents and Children

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Psychological well-being is contagious within families. However, two key issues remain unresolved: a) which type of well-being is transmitted and b) who transmits to whom The present study aims to answer these two questions by drawing on a longitudinal and nationally representative sample to examine a) whether both positive and negative aspects of well-being can be transmitted and b) whether both parents and children transmit well-being to each other. Analyses were conducted using the China Family Panel Studies data in 2010 (2971 adolescents and their parents) and 2014. Cross-lagged analysis showed that the positive aspect of well-being (i.e., subjective well-being, SWB) was almost fully transmitted among all family members. In contrast, the negative aspect of well-being (i.e., psychological distress, PD) was transmitted only from fathers to mothers and from fathers to adolescent children. A gender-specific effect emerged such that sons rather than daughters predicted fathers’ SWB. Well-being contagion in families was more robust for the positive aspect of well-being. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

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  1. Household structure (i.e., having a single child vs. more than one child) did not predict any of the well-being outcomes when controlling for Time 1 well-being: children’s SWB (p = .53), fathers’ SWB (p = .10), mothers’ SWB (p = .78), children’s distress (p = .13), fathers’ distress (p = .64), and mothers’ distress (p = .55). Therefore, we did not include household structure as a covariate in subsequent analysis.

  2. Parental SWB was operationalized as the average of the life satisfaction measure and the happiness measure. Children’s SWB was operationalized as their answer on the happiness measure. Children did not answer the life satisfaction survey and thus their SWB operationalization was slightly different from how it was operationalized among parents. We also analyzed the data by only using the happiness measure for both parents and children and the results are the same as what we reported here.

  3. When controlling for age of children and socioeconomic status of parents at Time 2, all significant and non-significant paths, as shown in Figs. 1 and 2, remained unchanged.


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This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC31600911, NSFC31700972) and Guangzhou University (69-18ZX10079).


The data are from China Family Panel Studies (CFPS), funded by 985 Program of Peking University and carried out by the Institute of Social Science Survey of Peking University.

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Correspondence to Peilian Chi or Hongfei Du.

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Chi, P., Du, H., King, R.B. et al. Well-Being Contagion in the Family: Transmission of Happiness and Distress Between Parents and Children. Child Ind Res 12, 2189–2202 (2019).

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