Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
Sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer once described contemporary children as "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." That ethos might be why previous research on parenting and well-being assume that children are the cause of either joy or misery for their parents. Some studies associated parenthood with positive emotions and more meaning in life, while others found that marital satisfaction dipped and stress, depression and anxiety levels rose after a child was born.
New researchers from Texas A&M University looked at it from the opposite direction to find out: Do happy people have more children?
Researchers analyzed two longitudinal data sets from previous studies. The first data set was from the National Survey of Lawyers' Career Satisfaction conducted in 1984 and 1990. The 559 respondents, mostly males between the ages of 25 and 82, reported the number of children they had in 1984 and again in 1990 as well as their general life satisfaction at both time intervals.
The second set of data came from the Midlife Development in the US survey, conducted in 1995–1996 and 2004–2006. The 4,963 American men and women surveyed, who were all between the ages of 20 and 75, reported the number of children they had at both time intervals as well as their emotional and psychological well-being and general life satisfaction. Put together, these two data sets gave the researchers plenty to work with to come up with generalizable findings.
The researchers found that happiness actually was a predictor of childbirth. Meaning: People who reported higher levels of happiness the first time they were surveyed either had their first child or had more children by the time they were surveyed about 10 years later. This effect was particularly powerful if the respondent had no children at the time her or she was first surveyed.
Of course this doesn't mean that you can assume that it's as simple as, "Why yes -- happy people do have more children!" If only academic research was that simple.
What these findings do provide, though, is some evidence that there is an association between happiness and likelihood to reproduce, which allows researchers to make some educated guesses as to why that may be. Some guesses they had:
•People who have positive emotions are able to accumulate psychological resources that foster social relationships and financial success, two factors that are also linked to childbearing.
•Positive feelings can make people feel so comfortable and satisfied with their lives that they feel equipped to make the big life change that having children requires.
•People with higher levels of well-being often have a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life, which makes them more likely to have "clear goals and aims," like having children, according to the researchers.
•Happy people are more likely to be in committed relationships, which makes them more likely to have children.
So whatever came first -- the happiness, the child, the chicken or the egg -- it's interesting to consider just how nuanced the emotional impact kids have on parents really is. At the very least, it's safe to say that most parents think the life-altering undertaking is worth it.
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