Why are parents in the U.S. so unhappy compared to the rest of the world?

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Over the past few years, more and more couples have begun to speak publicly about their decision not to have children—and the joy this lifestyle has brought them. Who needs kids, they explain, when their lives are wonderful as they are?


These folks will likely be glad to know that a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families has found that people in the U.S. without kids are, in fact, notably happier than those with kids. But a closer look at the data reveals that the reason isn't as straightforward as it may seem—in fact, it has little to do with kids themselves.

For the report, researchers looked at happiness levels among parents versus non-parents in 22 different Western countries—and found staggering differences between us and the rest of the world.


In countries like Norway and Hungary, for example, parents were, in fact, happier than non-parents. Similar results were seen in Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, which led researchers to believe that this "parental happiness penalty" isn't necessarily about having kids—it's about where you have them.

The most depressing part? The U.S. ranked dead last.

"The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia," wrote Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study.

In this country, the happiness level of parents is 10% lower than that of non-parents.

So what's up with being a parent in the U.S.? The researchers looked into varying explanations, including family size, population size, number of unexpected births and wealth—but according to the data, none of these factors contributed significantly to the happiness gap.


Next they looked into the time, money, and energy it takes to raise a child in different countries. To do this, they dove into government policy issues such as duration and generosity of paid parental leave, average cost of child care, and work schedule flexibility. With this data they differentiated countries with "good parental policy packages" from countries with "weak parental policy packages." They also controlled for GDP, to make sure parental happiness wasn't occurring simply because parents lived in a richer country.

They'd found their answer. Social policies, it turns out, were hugely influential.


"What we found was astonishing," wrote Glass. "The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers."

Indeed, there was no happiness gap between parents and non-parents in countries with generous family policy packages. Even better news, the social policies that helped parents the most also helped non-parents, because they included things like more time of from work for everyone and minimum paid sick days.


Glass and her team also found some gender differences in happiness. Fathers tended to get happiness bumps with money-specific policies such as curbing child care costs, whereas mothers saw happiness bumps with time-related policies such as paid sick leave. But the researchers say these differences were minor, and that overall, "The most important predictor of higher relative levels of happiness for parents was the presence of family policies making it less stressful and less costly combine childrearing with paid work."

For a broader—and even starker—look at just how much the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to creating parent-friendly social policies, this BuzzFeed video from 2014 puts the situation into relief:

So how do we change the system—and boost parental happiness levels?

For starters, we need to push our political leaders to fight for better parenting policies, Glass told me over email.


"Vote your interests in the next election(s); these are national policies we are studying," she said. "Expecting the free market to support early child care or paid time off has proven to be a losing strategy for American parents. And who can blame employers for not wanting to foot the bill alone for leaves and decent low-cost child care? As economist Nancy Folbre says, 'If we all benefit from well-raised children of employed parents, then we should all help pay for them a little bit too.'" Well said.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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