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Chris Bolin

Forget all those gloomy studies on how kids breed discontent for their unsuspecting parents - an effect said to last until after the little rotters finally leave home. According to new research from Britain, children are bundles of joy after all. Especially if you have three.

Luis Angeles, an economist at the University of Glasgow, came to this conclusion after dissecting 15 years of data on 9,000 British households.

Parents are slightly happier after their first child arrives, Dr. Angeles says, "but the increase is bigger and can be detected more clearly with two and three children."

The happiness gain stops with three, he adds.

Married women in particular report higher life satisfaction after having kids, despite the toll on their bodies and careers, Dr. Angeles notes.

The catch is that only married people get the mood boost that comes with the pitter-patter of little feet, according to his analysis, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Happiness Studies.

For parents who are separated, single or unmarried but living as a couple, having children is either a neutral experience or a net minus, he says.

Previous studies do not take marital status into account, Dr. Angeles points out.

He speculates that married parents are happier than those in common-law relationships because having children fulfills a shared vision for their lives.

"It's not just about having the resources [to raise children]" Dr. Angeles says. "It's also about wanting to do it."

His analysis flies in the face of several decades of research that suggests parents are more miserable than they let on.

Andrew E. Clark, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, found that expectant couples get an infusion of happiness after their first new arrival. Within a year after the child is born, however, their moods plummet for at least four years until their mental well-being gradually rebounds to pre-child levels.

Other scholars have found that, compared with childless individuals, parents have lower levels of happiness, marital satisfaction and emotional well-being. In fact, after analyzing a variety of studies, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert concluded that things don't look up until after the last child has left home.

Social scientists have no trouble explaining why. Kids sap parents' disposable income, social opportunities and sex lives. And parents who have spent years pursuing their passions - from rock climbing to rock bands - suddenly lack time to do the things that used to make them happy.

It's the daily grind that does us in, according to Nattavudh Powdthavee, a researcher at the University of York in Britain. Most parents will cherish the memory of a child's first smile rather than mulling over the dirty diapers, the teething and sibling combat. But their overall satisfaction in life may deteriorate despite their unshakable belief that children bring joy.

Little research has been done on cultures with strong extended-family networks, however. And plenty of scholars remain unconvinced that kids are a blight on their parents' lives.

Sociology professor Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania surveyed a large group of Danish identical twins to rule out genetic predisposition for happiness among parents. He found that the first baby makes both mom and dad significantly happier. A second baby has little effect on the father's happiness - and causes the mother's to decrease.

So much for the typical family of four.

For couples who are planning their future based on social-science research (you know who they are), the take-home is clear. When it comes to kids, happiness is an odd number.

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