Sharon Jayson writes:
The conventional wisdom that’s developed over the past few decades — based on early research — has said parents are less happy, more depressed and have less-satisfying marriages than their childless counterparts.
But now, two new studies presented as part of the Population Association of America’s annual meeting suggest that earlier findings in several studies weren’t so clear-cut and may, in fact, be flawed. The newer analyses presented this week use analytical methods based on data from almost 130,000 adults around the globe — including more than 52,000 parents — and the conclusions aren’t so grim. They say that parents today may indeed be happier than non-parents and that parental happiness levels — while they do drop — don’t dip below the levels they were before having children. . . .
The other study, of some 120,000 adults from two nationally representative surveys between 1972-2008, finds that parents were indeed less happy than non-parents in the decade 1985-95, but parents from 1995 to 2008 were happier. . . .
This is consistent with my observation that happiness research is a mess. Don’t get me wrong: I think happiness is very much worth studying. But various seemingly well-known results don’t seem so clear when they are studied more carefully. This is not the first time that Happiness Scholar #2 comes to an opposite conclusion as Happiness Scholar #1.
The larger point, perhaps, is that it that “stylized facts” (the social-science term for generally-accepted findings) can mislead. Sometimes the interaction is bigger than the main effect.
Here’s a recent paper by Mikko Myrskylä, one of the researchers mentioned in the above article:
The literature on fertility and happiness has neglected comparative analysis. We investigate the fertility/happiness association using data from the World Values Surveys for 86 countries. We find that globally, happiness decreases with the number of children. This association, however, is strongly modified by individual and contextual factors. Most importantly, we find that the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40, and is strongest among those who are likely to benefit most from upward intergenerational transfers. In addition, analyses by welfare regime show that the negative fertility/ happiness association for younger adults is weakest in countries with high public support for families, and the positive association above age 40 is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family.
The news article ends with the following comment:
“The first child increases happiness quite a lot. The second child a little. The third not at all,” says Myrskylä.
As a statistician, I hate hate hate hate hate when people ignore variability and present results deterministically. The above statement might be an accurate summary of average patterns but is certainly not true in every case!