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Why having kids doesn't necessarily make you happier, according to research

Why you don't need kids to be happy
Why you don't need kids to be happy

Parents often refer to their children as their "pride and joy." But research tells a different story: Having kids doesn't necessarily make people happier.

Most parents feel that their children are incredibly important sources of life satisfaction, says Jennifer Glass, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a demographer who studies the relationship between parenthood and well-being.

"But that's not the same thing as happiness, and it's not the same thing as financial well-being, good physical health or good emotional health," Glass tells CNBC Make It.

So, why does having kids not provide the happiness that we think it will?

Having kids is a roller coaster ride

Research shows that there is a "happiness bump" that parents experience right after a baby is born. But that tends to dissipate over the course of a year, Glass says.

After that point in time, the levels of happiness of parents and non-parents gradually diverge, with non-parents generally growing happier over time.

It's not that parents are lukewarm about bringing a baby into their lives, but child-rearing is tough.

"You find that [parents'] happiness plummets pretty quickly once they discover all of the work that's involved in a brand new baby," Amy Blackstone, professor of sociology at the University of Maine, and author of "Childfree by Choice," tells CNBC Make It.

When reflecting on their lives, parents tend to focus on the positive, loving moments that they have with their kids, Glass says. "And thank goodness for that, because those same marvelous little creatures can put us into the abyss of despondency if anything goes wrong," she says.

Happiness is a nuanced concept that's made up of life satisfaction, which is how happy you are with the way your life is going, and well-being, which is how you feel on a moment-to-moment basis.

While having kids does boost your life satisfaction, it comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility and daily stress. This results in a rollercoaster of very high highs and lows over the course of their experience of parenthood.

A study from Princeton University and Stony Brook University found that parents and nonparents have similar levels of life satisfaction, but parents experienced both more daily joy and more daily stress than nonparents.

"Life without children is simply much more stable," Glass says.

Parents cope with 'constant low-level stressors'

From figuring out remote learning to getting up in the middle of the night to tend to a sick kid, there are "a lot of constant low-level stressors in parents' lives," Glass says. Depression and anxiety tend to be higher among actively parenting adults.

Stress doesn't automatically disappear once kids grow up and become self-reliant. A 2019 study found that older parents are happier than nonparents only if their kids have moved out.

The price of having the strong emotional connections people have with their kids is a lot of worry and concern, Glass says.

During the pandemic, the "price" of having kids has been compounded by the fact that millions of women with children have been pushed out of the workforce due to increased demands at home.

A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that 75% of parents with kids under age 18 said they could've used more emotional support during the pandemic, and 48% of parents said their stress increased since the pandemic.

Kids are expensive and Americans don't get a lot of help

Money is a major factor that affects parental happiness. In a 2019 study, researchers found that when they removed financial difficulties from the equation, having children did increase happiness.

The average cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 in the U.S. was estimated to be over $233,000 in 2015 (the most recent Consumer Expenditures Survey data from the USDA). In January, CNBC Make It estimated that the average American household with kids spends about $11,000 in yearly direct and indirect child care costs alone.

In addition, "what we have in the United States is a social structure in which we've made parenthood particularly difficult," Glass says.

A 2017 study found that parents in the U.S. are significantly less happy than parents in other developed nations that provide more generous family policies, such as paid parental leave. (In Finland, for example, new parents are given a box of baby items after giving birth and they get 164 days of paid leave each.)

In most cases, childfree adults — people who have made the very intentional and explicit choice to opt out of parenthood — may have more freedom, time and money to do things that they find fulfilling, Blackstone says.

Nonparents are able to spend their money in ways that have been shown to increase happiness, like putting money toward personal growth or connecting with communities.

People who are childfree by choice also tend to donate more money to causes that matter to them, and plan for old age.

"Because we're not spending our money rearing kids, many of us are able to sock away money for retirement and in a way that parents may not be able to do," Blackstone says.

It's about more than happiness

Ultimately, there are lots of positives that come along with having a family.

Although parents might fall short on moment-to-moment happiness, having kids provides meaning, satisfaction and connection in parents' lives.

"If we were to rate the importance of our relationships with our children, they would zoom to the top," even above relationships with partners, Glass says.

Indeed, there are myriad nuanced reasons why people have children that are well beyond their own happiness.

"What a lot of people remember about parenthood are the incredible highs of creating new life, and the outpouring of love and devotion that you feel for that new person and the protection and affection that you want to give to that person," Glass says.

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