American parents have biggest happiness gap of 22 countries, but employers could change that

Posted June 23

Research shows American parents are less happy than nonparents — and the gap is bigger in America than in other countries. The fix for that appears to be in the workplace. Policies impact family support, but not the ones you think. (Deseret Photo)

American parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. And the parenthood "happiness gap" is greater in the United States than in 21 other countries studied, according to a briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Researchers wrote they were astonished to discover "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." (The italicized emphasis was theirs.)

"The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not," the report said. "Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children."

The cure for the happiness gap is "public policy that, in particular cases, combining paid work with parental obligation," said Robin W. Simon, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University.

"And this is interesting and important: These policies don't come at a cost to nonparents. Everyone benefits," she said.

The full peer-reviewed study report will be published in September in the American Journal of Sociology.

What matters most

Less happy doesn't mean unhappy. In the survey, Americans, in general, were pretty happy overall, placing themselves between 8 and 10 on a 10-point happiness scale. The French, for instance, place themselves between 5 and 7.

"We aren't sure if this means the French are truly less happy than Americans, or just don't think it is appropriate to use the extremes of any scale," the researchers wrote.

Instead of measuring who says they're the happiest, since cultural norms about happiness may vary in different societies, the researchers compared those with kids against those without kids in each country to find any parental status happiness gap.

Not all parents are less happy than the childless in their countries. In Hungary and Norway, for example, parents were happier than nonparents, the researchers noted. They found no happiness gap in countries where employers offered better family policy packages.

To explore the "why" behind the differences they found, the researchers examined some existing theories, like family size, unplanned parenthood and other issues. But with those, they came up dry, the factors proving to be "relatively unimportant in understanding why parents are less happy than childless individuals in many countries."

Then they looked at cost in time, money and effort, noting policies that could help employed parents, such as paid parenting leave, sick and vacation days, the cost of child care, workplace flexibility and more. To make sure they weren't simply seeing what happens when one lives in a rich country, compared to a poor one, they considered gross domestic product and fertility rates for each country, the researchers wrote.

"The policy with the most explanatory power was the extent of the child care subsidy for parents of your average 2-year-old. It was slightly more powerful for fathers than mothers but showed effects on aggregate parental happiness for both mother and fathers," lead author Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families, told the Deseret News in an email.

"The second-most powerful explanatory variable was the number of guaranteed paid sick and vacation days per year. It was slightly stronger for mothers than for fathers but again, was significant for both genders," she said.

The researchers said they found that parent-focused policies like paid parental leave for infant care are valuable, but the paid sick and vacation days "can be used for short-term family care and support beyond the period of infancy," the researchers wrote.

Paid parental leave made parents happier, but didn't change the happiness of the childless, said the researchers, who noted limitations on their ability to look at the impact of different policies for parents "at different life cycle stages," such as whether they are parents of young kids or grown kids.

State by state

Simon pointed to efforts in America to "more easily blend employment with parenthood." California and New York have instituted new family friendly employer policies on paid leave, "not to the same extent as other countries, but it’s a start."

Coca-Cola has a policy that will give new parents paid time off. The company hopes to attract millennials as employees. Since that generation is entering or in their early childbearing years, doing more for parents may provide an edge, she noted.

"Our research strongly suggests parent policies matter in the lives of parents. They improve the health and well-being of parents and it's not just moms, it’s dads too," said Simon.

The study, supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, compared data from 22 European and English-speaking countries. To avoid questions of whether the global recession and economic challenges impacted happiness findings, they used data collected in the International Social Surveys of 2007 and 2008 and European Social Surveys of 2006 and 2008 before the recession.

A third researcher, Matthew Andersson, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, co-wrote the study with Glass and Simon.

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