Do your children make you happy? When different researchers ask parents questions like that they tend to get contradictory results. The latest issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies reports on a British study that finds having children does increase the happiness of married couples; in fact the more kids they have, the happier these couples are.

Married, you notice. For unmarried individuals, raising children has little or no positive effect, the study by Luis Angeles of the University of Glasgow finds. Dr Angeles says previous research that showed children added nothing, or almost nothing, to their parents’ happiness did not take marital status and other variables, such as gender, age income and education into account

An example of the latter is a University of York study by Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee. This expert on the economics of happiness explained his results by suggesting that the “widespread belief” that having children makes you happy is a “focussing illusion” — that is, when people think about being a mother or father they focus on “rare but meaningful experiences like a child’s first smile or seeing them get married” and believe these will bring “massive and long-lasting increases in happiness.” He continues:

“But in reality, we rarely think about these big experiences on a daily basis, simply because they do not occur to us every day. Instead, parents spend much of their time attending to the very core processes of child care – problems at school, cooking and laundry – which are much more frequent but a lot less salient events. And it is these small but negative experiences that are more likely to impact on our day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction.”

Perhaps some people think about children and family life in that way, but parents who find that daily chores make them unhappy probably have other issues they need to address, like their relationship with their spouse. Dr Angeles found that negative experiences in raising children were reported by people who are separated, cohabiting or single, having never been married; these people said that children made inroads on their social life and leisure time.

But for married individuals of all ages and married women in particular, children increase life satisfaction and this satisfaction goes up with the number of children in the household, says Dr Angeles. He concludes:

“One is tempted to advance that children make people better off under the ‘right conditions’ – a time in life when people feel that they are ready, or at least willing, to enter parenthood. This time can come at very different moments for different individuals, but a likely signal of its approach may well be the act of marriage.”

A University of Denver study published earlier this year tends to confirm his findings. This research showed couples who lived together before marriage experienced more problems after birth than those who lived separately before marriage, as did those whose parents fought or divorced. Couples who had been married longer, or who had higher incomes, seemed to have fewer marital problems related to having a baby than those with lower incomes or who had been married for a shorter period of time. The author warns against underestimating the longterm happiness of building family life by focusing on times that are more difficult, such as immediately after the birth of a first child.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet