In the last several days, the results of two studies came out to add to the collection of research on who's happiest -- parents or those with no children. One was sponsored by Open University in Great Britain, and was based on an online survey of about 4500 respondents. The media has had a field day with it, particularly the findings that, "Childless married and unmarried participants are happier with their relationship and their partner than parents, and "...mothers are significantly happier with life than any other group."
The other study was conducted by Angus Deaton and Arthur A. Stone at Princeton University. It analyzed data from Gallup surveys in the U.S and Gallup's World Poll. CNN correspondent and editor-at-large Kelly Wallace sums up the results of the analyses by saying "...once you factor out issues like income, education, health and religion, which could affect how you feel about your life overall... there is no difference really at all between people who have children and those who don't have children in terms of their overall happiness."
Previous research has had conflicting results. About a year ago, USA Today reported on a few of different studies. It included research presented at 2012's Population Association of America meeting that found parents happier. One study, which analyzed data from two national surveys, found "that parents weren't as happy as non-parents from 1985 to 1995, but were happier from 1995 to 2008." The reason? Because of a "decline in happiness among non-parents."
Other experts disagree. Sociologist Robin Simon of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., has indicated that, "There is no sociological study I'm aware of that shows parents do better than non-parents." Simon conducted a study that found parents less happy than non-parents. She is "absolutely confident in saying that across these large data sets, parents do not enjoy better mental and physical health than non-parents...In fact, the evidence clearly points in the opposite direction: Parents report lower levels of happiness, higher levels of depressive symptoms and assess their physical health as poorer than persons who never had children."
Then there are studies about happiness in general. In his article, "What's Happening to Women's Happiness," Marcus Buckingham says in the last 40 years more than 1.3 million men and women have been surveyed in the U.S. and in developed countries around the world, and among the top findings, "Since 1972, women's overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were forty years ago, and relative to men. You find this drop in happiness in women regardless of whether they have kids, how many kids they have, how much money they make, how healthy they are, what job they hold, whether they are married, single or divorced, how old they are, or what race they are."
We see studies that are all over the happiness map -- sometimes parents come out ahead, other times it's those with no children, relationships with no children, and other times it ends up a draw. One research flaw is constant, however. No study I have seen differentiates between non-parents who want children and don't have them, those who want kids but don't want them yet, and those who have no kids by choice. In the Open University study, for example, including these variables could have answered these questions: How does happiness compare between mothers and those who don't have children but do want them someday? How does happiness compare with mothers and those who do not have children by choice? With those who want them and have not been able to have them? And the same questions could be more accurately answered for men.
When you look across studies like these there is still no one conclusion about who's happier -- those with kids or those (for whatever the reason) without. What can we conclude about why there is no one conclusion? Could it be that parenthood is not "the" variable to measure for determining happiness to begin with? To try and keep figuring out whether having children makes us the happiest (or trying to prove this is the case) just reinforces pronatalist assumptions that it is "the" key to fulfillment in life.
It's time to stop going round and round with the "who's happier" question when it comes to those with and without kids. It's not one group versus the other. It boils down to how we define happiness in the first place for ourselves. And the formula for happiness and fulfillment is different for each of us. For some, having children is part of that formula. For others, it's not.
As Suzanne Moore writes, "Having kids gives meaning to lives, but this is not the only way to have a meaningful and wonderful life." Finding the keys to that meaningful life is a journey that is all our own. Choosing not to have parenthood be the central focus of my life has allowed me to find the answers that are right for me -- and that makes me very happy.
Laura is the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.