Why does having kids rarely make people happier, and often makes them even less happy? I asked economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Clark about their study that anaylzed one million adults in 35 countries over the past decade.
Happiness researchers have found over and over again that having children doesn’t tend to make people happier, and might even make them less happy. How do you explain that finding? Why would people keep having kids if that were the case?
Happiness studies always find that marriage makes you happy and unemployment makes you unhappy, The puzzle in the literature was that children generally did not appear to make people happy and often, as in the early results in our paper – actually made people less happy. Andrew Clark and I never believed that – as you say if people had one child and they made them unhappy why would they have two or three? The result looked wrong.
What made you investigate the role finances play in a parent’s happiness?
We are economists and we are interested in the effects of income on well-being. We are also parents and I am a grandparent and we realized how expensive it is to bring up kids. I have two daughters with kids who struggle to pay the bills. Student loans are a special burden that prevents young people striking out on their own.
To what extent do you think parents are able to pinpoint their finances as the source of their unhappiness? Or do they tend to just blame parenting in general?
I know how expensive child care is and how this impacts the careers of women. My daughter who has twins age 1 and a 2-year old pays $100 a month for diapers and uses a gallon of milk a day, I am not sure parents are able to separate out the impact of money but Americans generally have a bad work/life balance and would like to have more family time. Weak wage growth since the Great Recession hasn’t helped.
Is there a sweet spot in terms of income when parental strain begins to ease? Does it matter so much how much additional wealth a parent has after that threshold is reached?
Our study looks at something more simple than that as we study happiness across lots of countries – we look at whether parents have trouble paying their bills and if they do then that really makes them unhappy. Across the million people we studied across a decade 59% said they never had trouble paying their bills, 29% said from time to time and 12% said all the time.
Your research also found that parents with kids under ten seemed to be happier than parents with children a few years older – even when finances are taken into account. Why do you think that is?
Our research shows that once you take into account the difficulty of paying bills, then children increase happiness. We also find that your kids raise happiness the most compared to step-kids. Young kids raise happiness more than those from 10-14, who are preparing to leave home. Teenagers aren’t easy and our study shows that! Little kids don’t answer back as much! Clothes for teenagers are expensive.
It’s more expensive than ever to raise a child these days. What policies or governmental action do you think would help most in easing the burden and making parents happier overall?
Our paper shows that helping parents pay their bills would raise their happiness. So programs to subsidize childcare – or even to make it free as in some Nordic countries – will likely raise the well-being of all of us. Women who couldn’t afford to go to work can now afford to do so. We also know that a year of education when a child is young – say 3-5 years of age – has a high rate of return – it is easier to teach a child a new language at four than at fourteen. It would also help to improve the work/life balance in the US and perhaps lower the growing amounts of pain -physical and mental – many Americans report. This is worth doing given we know happiness in the US is declining.