Many studies have suggested that people who are parents — particularly women — tend to be less happy than their childless peers. That doesn’t mean children don’t bring their parents moments of great joy, but they also cause plenty of stress, worry and anxiety.
No wonder, then, that in study after study, parents report lower levels of emotional well-being and life satisfaction than non-parents.
But is that true across all stages of parenthood? Or are parents only less happy when their children are young and living with them?
A large, European study, published recently in the journal PLOS One, suggests that may be the case. It found that parents of adult children tend to have higher levels of emotional well-being and life satisfaction than their peers without children.
But there’s a catch. They’re only happier if their grown-up children are no longer living with them.
Still, this will be welcomed news to many parents.
“The results suggest that the finding of a negative link between children and well-being and mental health may not generalize to older people whose children have often left home already,” the authors of the study write.
“As stress associated with balancing the competing demands of childcare, work and personal life decreases, once people get older and their children leave [home], the importance of children as caregivers and social contacts might prevail,” they add.
How the study was done
For the study, researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany and Tiburg University in the Netherlands analyzed survey data collected from 55,000 people aged 50 and older living in 16 European countries. In additional to soliciting general demographic and health information, the survey asked questions designed to measure factors associated with mental health and well-being, such as life satisfaction, quality of life, depression and social support. It also asked about the participants’ marital status, children (including stepchildren and foster children) and grandchildren.
Compared to those in the survey with no children, the ones who were parents reported, on average, higher levels of emotional well-being and lower levels of depression, but only if their grown children no longer lived with them.
Those results were similar for both men and women.
Interestingly, the effect of grandchildren on the lives of the people who took the survey was mixed. People with grandchildren tended to report higher levels of life satisfaction, but also higher levels of depression and lower levels of quality of life. Those results may reflect that grandparents often have to care for their grandchildren, say the study’s authors.
The study also found, as other studies have, that having one or more strong social network, including marriage, was positively associated with increased wellbeing and life satisfaction in older age — a finding that may explain, say the study’s authors, why parents with grown children are, on average, more content with their lives that their peers without children.
“Taken together, our results suggest that social networks may be important for wellbeing and mental health in old age,” the researchers point out. “Spouses, partners and children are often the basis of long-lasting social networks, which can provide social support to elderly people.”
Limitations and implications
The study was observational, so it can’t prove a causal link between being a parent of grown children and having a greater sense of well-being. Also, the survey’s participants were all European. Their experiences, therefore, might not be applicable to parents in other countries, including the United States.
Indeed, other research has found that the experiences of younger European parents are not necessarily applicable to their counterparts in the U.S. A 2016 study conducted in 22 countries found that younger parents with children at home are not less happy than their childless peers — if they live in Norway, Sweden or other countries with generous family policies, particularly paid parental leave and child care subsidies.
The current study’s finding that older parents are happier when their children have left home is somewhat supported, however, by at least one recent study conducted in the U.S. That study found that “older parents [between the ages of 50 and 70] with minor children still at home are less happy than their empty nest contemporaries by about 5 or 6 percentage points.”
Of course, older people don’t have to be parents to experience enhanced well-being. The PLOS One study found that other types of social networks have similar effects on well-being, especially for older men.
“While results on parenthood might be controversial and depend on the age of the studied population, there is widespread agreement that social support is associated with higher life satisfaction, and that social networks are an important factor for wellbeing,” the study’s authors conclude.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the PLOS One website.