Study Finds US Parents Are the Unhappiest in the World & It's Not Surprising Why

stressed out momIf you ask most parents, they'll say that having kids is the best thing that ever happened to them. But if you look at most studies, you'll find that parents also consistently report lower levels of happiness than people without kids. That discrepancy is known as the "happiness penalty," and it's the subject of a recent study which found, among other things, that the US has the largest happiness gap between parents and non-parents in the world.


Prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, the paper "Social Policies, Parenthood, and Happiness in 22 Countries" used data from two international surveys conducted between 2006 and 2008 to determine that while the "happiness penalty" exists to varying degrees around the world, this overall level of dissatisfaction for parents is "not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life"; in fact, in some countries, including Norway and Hungary, parents actually report higher levels of happiness than non-parents. US parents, however, are apparently the unhappiest parents on the planet, with a gap that's "significantly larger" than those in Australia and Great Britain. The question is, why?

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers theorize that a lack of family-friendly government policies may be largely to blame. While investigating their findings, the paper's authors looked into a variety of potential causes for the penalty, such as unplanned births and family size -- but what they discovered is that there was no greater influencing factor on parental happiness than solid family support policies. According to researchers Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon, and Matthew Andersson, "The negative effects of parenting on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations." 

Interestingly, these findings were true for both mothers and fathers; while the happiness of dads was found to be slightly more connected to financial policies (specifically, childcare costs) and moms' mental well-being was slightly more tied to time-related policies such as paid sick and vacation days, these differences were "minor" -- basically, the bottom line is that countries with cheaper out-of-pocket costs for childcare, guaranteed paid family leave, and paid sick and vacation days had happier parents. And it's not that handouts make families feel better, either -- one fascinating observation made by researchers was that giving families money (in the form of child allowances, for example) had less of an effect on their happiness than giving them the ability to successfully balance career and child-rearing responsibilities.

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Of course, none of this comes as much of a shock to any American parent. It's not that our kids are making us unhappy, it's all the attendant stress -- much of which has nothing to do with our actual children. It's trying to figure out how to support them when childcare costs more than many people's salaries and a large number of companies are completely unsupportive of parents who need to take time off to take care of their kids (or even breaks to pump breastmilk). None of that means we love our kids any less, or even that we would have chosen not to have them if we'd known how hard it would be to make it as a family in this country nowadays, but it does mean that we're too worried about a million things to technically say we're "happy" a lot of the time. 

And that's really not fair. Enjoying the experience of raising your children shouldn't be a privilege only available to the super rich (or people who live in other countries). The US is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid maternity leave. The only one. That means many women are at risk of losing their jobs when they have children, or at the very least losing a significant chunk of income while they stay home to take care of their newborn. And then once moms finally do go back to work, they may find themselves forced to settle for less-than-acceptable childcare because that's all they can afford. How are we supposed to be happy, exactly, through all of this?

We desperately need new policies supporting families in this country, but whether or not that's going to happen anytime soon is hard to say. With all the current political unrest, you would think lawmakers would begin to realize that we need to make more of an investment in the well-being and stability of our children and families. You'd think the powers-that-be would start to consider that maybe many of the problems in this country today began in people's unhappy homes. But will they? Will they ever?

In the meantime, I guess, there's always Norway or Hungary.


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