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Why older parents are happier than younger ones

Interview: Tobias OelmaierJuly 7, 2015

Would-be parents beware: Scientists in Germany and Canada say waiting 'til you're 35 may make you happier - for longer. DW asks the Max Planck Institute's demographics expert Prof. Dr. Mikko Myrskylä to explain.

a royal baby
Image: Reuters/John Stillwell

DW: First, how do you measure happiness?

Prof. Dr. Mikko Myrskylä: We used a standard method for measuring happiness. Basically, the people who participate in the survey are asked on an annual basis how happy they are with their lives. And they respond on a scale from zero, which is very unhappy, to 10, which is very happy. And prior research has shown that this is a valid measure of happiness.

You surveyed seven thousand people, you analyzed the data, and you found that parents over the age of 34 were happier than younger ones. How come?

We found that among those who have children at older ages, their happiness level increases when they have children much more than it does among those who are young parents. And we think this relates to how ready one is to have children.

There is quite a lot of qualitative research that shows that readiness is an important determinant to how much you can enjoy parenthood. Older parents tend to have higher levels of education, higher levels of income, their careers are more stable, and they have more stable partnerships.

Mikko Myrskylä, Max Planck Institute Rostock
Myrskylä: happiness is short-lived, but we found an exceptionImage: Fotostudio Hagedorn, Rostock

This all helps mitigate the burden of parenthood, which is hard work, and perhaps allows you to enjoy parenthood more than what you would be able to do as a younger person.

So very young parents are very unhappy?

It really turns out to be that especially younger fathers are very unhappy. Their happiness levels - after the birth of their first child - decreases fairly rapidly. Among young mothers the effect is not so stark, but it is still negative. So this might result in advice that younger people should perhaps wait a bit before starting to have children.

Is happiness sustainable? How long does it last after the birth of a child?

That's a very good question. On average, we see that the effect of happiness is relatively short-lasting. When people have children, their increase in happiness may last a couple of years. And this is a general result in happiness research, in fact, for both positive and negative life events - the effect on happiness is fairly short-lived.

British royals Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge after the birth of their second child
The British royals William and Kate were in their 30s when they had their first child - will they be happier for longer?Image: Reuters/S. Plunkett

But we also found an important exception to this. Among older parents - parents who have children aged 34, 35 and older - the effect of children on happiness is long-lasting. So even 10 years after the birth of a child their happiness levels are higher than before the birth of a child.

So could happiness increase if you have more children?

What we found is that the first child increases happiness by a fairly large amount. The second still increases happiness, but not so much. And for the third child we did not detect any signal. So the third child appears to not increase happiness at all.

And what we think is important in this research is the happiness-children relationship is not something that would help us derive a recipe for happiness in general, rather it helps us understand why people have children in general.

Children are a lot of work, they cost time and money, and they don't necessarily provide old-age care in modern society, and so on… So why do people have children?

Basically, they continue to make people happy. So through this research, we believe that we now understand better why people postpone having children to older ages - they first acquire education - and why they also tend to have two [children] and not more, and not less [than two] children.

Are parents happier than people or couples who don't have children?

That's a question we still haven't been able to answer, and we did not attempt to answer that question in our study. We only compared happiness levels over time among those people who eventually have children, and among those [people] happiness increases around the years of the first birth.

But how to compare those who never have children to those who have children, in a way that would result in scientifically defendable results, continues to be a question that has not been fully solved.

Mikko Myrskylä is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. He is also heads the Laboratory of Population Health and the Laboratory of Fertility and Well-Being.