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Is parenting a joy or a trial?

Posted on 19 March 2009

As the nation prepares to celebrate motherhood, a University of York economist is claiming that the idea that parenting makes us happy is an illusion.

In an article in the latest issue of The Psychologist, Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee, of the University’s Department of Economics and Related Studies, offers an explanation to one of the most surprising conclusions of recent research into wellbeing — that having children does not increase our level of happiness.

Social scientists have found almost zero association between having children and happiness

Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee

"Social scientists have found almost zero association between having children and happiness," he said. "In a recent study of British adults for example we found that parents and non-parents reported the same levels of life satisfaction. Other studies from Europe and the USA found that parents report significantly lower levels of satisfaction than people who haven’t had children."

The widespread belief that having children makes you happy, can be explained as a ‘focussing illusion’ argues Dr Powdthavee, an expert on the economics of happiness. "To imagine what it’s like being a mother or a father we’re likely to focus more on the good things about being a parent than the bad things. This is mainly because we believe that the rare but meaningful experiences like a child’s first smile or seeing them get married will give us massive and long-lasting increases in happiness.

"But in reality, we rarely think about these big experiences on a daily basis, simply because they do not occur to us every day. Instead, parents spend much of their time attending to the very core processes of child care — problems at school, cooking and laundry — which are much more frequent but a lot less salient events. And it is these small but negative experiences that are more likely to impact on our day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction."

The full article can be found in the April edition of The Psychologist, the in-house magazine of The British Psychological Society, published on 26 March 2009.


Notes to editors:

  • More information on the University of York’s Department of Economics and Related Studies at
  • More Information on the British Psychological Society from Joanna Colburn, Public Relations officer. Tel. 0116 25295000, email

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