The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Key to Happiness

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

In Leo Tolstoy’s finest novel, Anna Karenina tragically discovered that personal happiness is rarely found apart from marital fidelity, family life, and children. Modern Europeans (and Americans) may think that timeless reality does not apply to them, yet an international team of researchers quantifies the moral of the nineteenth-century story, finding “a strong interconnection” between subjective levels of wellbeing, “partnership” status, and childbearing.

Looking at data from the third round (2006) of the European Social Survey, representing more than 14,000 adults, ages 20 to 50, living in nineteen countries in Europe, scholars from Milan, London, and Philadelphia explore the complex relationships between self-reported levels of happiness, having children, and “partnership” status. Their first set of analyses, exploring the relationship between childbearing and happiness, yielded somewhat mixed results. Having “a higher number of children,” relative to having no children, was marginally associated with increased happiness for men (p<0.10); for women, the association was positive but not significant. Having “at least one child,” relative to having no children, was significantly associated with increased happiness only in women (p<0.01).

Yet the link between happiness and parenthood became much stronger when the researchers added “partnership” status as an interaction variable in a subsequent set of tests, finding that “being simultaneously in a partnership and having children is positively and significantly associated with declared happiness levels for both men and women” (p<0.01 for men; p<0.05 for women).

The pattern reverses itself, however, when fathers and mothers reject each other and attempt to go it alone, as being single with “at least one child” inversely correlated with happiness for mothers and significantly so for fathers (p<0.01). As the scholars note, “The happiness of both mothers and fathers depends on a large extent on partnership status.”

The researchers also found that following conventional gender roles may be another key to happiness. Not surprising, they found that among employed parents, having “a large family” was associated with happiness among fathers (p<0.05) but inversely linked with happiness among mothers, even though the inverse relationship was not statistically significant.

While the researcher’s findings are solid, their methodology raises a question: Why the use of the ambiguous term “partnership status” instead of marital status? Had they used the more precise (and less politically correct) term for this critical variable, their findings may have further shown that being bond together as husband and wife beats “being in a partnership” on the many scales of happiness.

(Arnstein Aassve, Alice Goisis, and Maria Sironi, “Happiness and Childbearing Across Europe,” forthcoming in Social Indicators Research.)