Does having kids ruin your life? Ask a parent whose kid just did something adorable and you'll get one answer; ask a parent up at four in the morning trying to sooth a baby that's been screaming for hours and you'll probably get another. Now scientists have weighed in, and their take on the question is more or less this: both of those answers are kind of exactly right.
(There's always a degree of hedging when it comes to issues like this.)
In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tried to provide the definitive take on the issue of how parenthood affects life satisfaction, a subject that has produced conflicting results in other studies. Some say it's the key to happiness while others say it's pretty much the road to emotional ruin.
Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and his colleague Arthur Stone, a psychiatry researcher at Stony Brook University in New York, examined data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index, a trove of information on nearly two million Americans, and other Gallup data from countries around the world.
At first glance, the data seem to suggest that having kids does significantly boost overall life satisfaction. When you look at Americans, those with kids are more likely to have more money and be healthier, among other attributes.
But when researchers controlled for those factors, they found there's really no significant difference between those with kids and those without when it comes to life satisfaction.
"We find that in terms of life evaluation, people with kids and people without kids are not very different," Stone told the L.A. Times.
The researchers said this is likely due to issues of choice.
"A lot of people start out thinking that having children must make people happy," Stone said. "After all, the species needs it to continue. But there is no reason to think that people who decide to have children are any happier than people who decide not to have children. It's like apples and oranges, and I wouldn't think that people who like apples are any happier than people who like oranges."
But researchers did find one notable difference – one that probably won't come as much of a surprise to parents.
Having kids amplifies emotions, both good and bad, the researchers found. Overall life satisfaction may be the same for parents and people who do not have kids, "but people with kids have more joys and happiness as well as more negative emotions, like anger, worry and stress," Stone said.
And that's regardless of your wealth, health or marital status.
"No matter what the controls, children are always associated with both more positive and more negative emotions," the researchers said in their paper.