Having kids makes you happier, but only when they move out
When it comes to who is happier, people with kids or those without, most research points to the latter. But a new study suggests that parents are happier than non-parents later in life, when their children move out and become sources of social enjoyment rather than stress.
Most surveys of parental happiness have focused on those whose children still live at home. These tend to show that people with kids are less happy than their child-free peers because they have less free time, sleep and money.
Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University in Germany and his colleagues wondered if the story might be different for parents whose kids have left home. To find out, they analysed data from a European survey that asked 55,000 people aged 50 and older about their emotional well-being.
They found that, in this older age group, people with children had greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression than people without children, but only if their kids had left home.
Returning the favour
This may be because when children grow up and move out, they provide social enrichment to their parents minus the day-to-day stress of looking after them, says Becker. They may also give something back by providing care and financial support to their parents, he says. “Hence, children’s role as caregivers, financial support or simply as social contact might outweigh negative aspects of parenthood,” he says.
The picture is similar in the US, says Nicholas Wolfinger at the University of Utah. He recently analysed 40 years of data from the US General Social Survey and found that empty-nest parents aged 50 to 70 were 5 to 6 per cent more likely to report being very happy than those with kids still at home.
If parents balk at the idea of waiting for their kids to move out to maximise their potential happiness, they could move to a country with better childcare support, says Wolfinger. A 2016 study of 22 countries found that parents with children at home were actually slightly happier than their child-free peers if they lived in places like Norway, Portugal and Sweden that have paid parental leave, generous childcare subsidies and holiday and sick leave.