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Last Updated: Friday, 14 November 2003, 10:10 GMT
The pursuit of happiness (with or without kids)
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

Convention tells us the route to happiness is having children. So does the declining birth rate mean we are more miserable these days? Not according to a new report, which finds there is plenty of happiness in staying childless.

Today, we live longer, earn more and surround ourselves with labour-saving gadgets, but we are no happier now than 50 years ago.

Clearly the comforts of modern life have not been as rewarding as we might have hoped.

Owning a mobile phone with integrated camera and tri-band functionality is not, it seems, the key to mortal bliss.

Perhaps the ability to be happy is hardwired into us, through our capacity to have children, ensuring the succession of our genes.

Because parents find it hard to believe that those without children can be happy, that is the dominant view
Kate Stanley, IPPR

Again, the figures do not bear it out. While the birth rate in the UK is the lowest since records began in 1924, our level of contentment has remained fairly steady.

Two of the foremost thinkers on well-being, Richard Layard and Andrew Oswald, agree that children have a statistically insignificant impact on our happiness.

Yet anyone who has spent five minutes in the company of two doting parents will tell you otherwise.

A new survey is one of the first to try and unravel the mystery of whether children really make us happier.

In doing so, it explodes the myth that the so-called "smug marrieds" detested by Bridget Jones-style singletons have a monopoly on happiness.

Motherhood's pleasures

In 2001, almost 90% of British people reported they were very or fairly satisfied with life. According to this new study, those without children are, by and large, every bit as content as those with.

Bridget Jones
Heartening news for all Bridget Joneses
For mothers in particular, parenthood brings a new sort of pleasure, the result of spending time with their children, seeing them develop and providing a different take on life.

Yet this comes at a cost, both financial and emotional, according to the report, which spoke to 1,500 adults, parents and non-parents, between the ages of 20 and 40.

"Full-time working mothers are lower paid relative to women without children," says Kate Stanley, who carried out the survey for the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Most women also tend to take on the lion's share of domestic and child-care duties, according to the survey. And since income and independence have a bearing on happiness, what motherhood giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

The trade-off is less acute for men, but according to the survey, they are less ecstatic about children anyway. While two-thirds of mothers say their children make them most happy, just over 40% of fathers agree.

Gulf in understanding

All parents meanwhile, admit that children can make them unhappy, at times, through guilt, for example.

Icelandics are happiest of all, although less well-off than Americans
Americans are happier, and wealthier, than the British
But the British are happier then the French, Italians and Germans
Source:World Values Survey, 1995

On the other side, those without children recognise they are freer to pursue their own interests and enjoyment than their tied-up, family-focused friends.

What emerges from the study, carried out for Lever Faberge, is how previously strong friendships can be eroded by the gulf in understanding between parents and their childless friends.

Parents widely believe that to be childless is to be unhappy. They tend to pity their friends who do not have children, believing they "could have no conception of what they were missing".

Yet alongside this pity, is a feeling that those who have opted not to propagate are "selfish, inflexible, unfulfilled and lonely".

Envy and resentment

Inevitably, perhaps, there are also flashes of envy. The lifestyle and material affluence enjoyed by childless friends seems to rankle with those who must put their hard-won cash towards baby buggies and nursery fees.

But this ill-feeling is a two-way street. According to the report, those without children often resent their friends with children for becoming focused on "their own little nest".

Kate Stanley hopes the report will lead to a greater understanding between those on both sides of the parenthood fence.

"Because parents, or those who plan to be parents, are in the majority, their belief that those without children cannot be happy is the dominant view," she says.

"But it is not borne out by those who do not have children."

Two women in their 30s, one a mother and one not:

Emma Flack, 31

  • Married and mother to 11-month-old Rory. Lives in London.
  • Emma has returned to full-time work as a corporate PR.
  • "Having a child has made me much more productive at work. I go in at 8.45am and work flat out until about 5pm.
  • "Having Rory was the happiest moment of my life. Seeing his every progression, like when we taught him to clap, makes me even happier.
  • "The downside is the responsibility, but also the huge competitive pressure from other parents. It's hard not to be sucked in.
  • "Before children I was perhaps 6/10 happy. Now I'm 8/10."
  • Caroline Harding, 34

  • About to move in with partner, plans to wait "a few years" before having children.
  • Works full-time as a senior executive. Lives in London.
  • "I'm very happy just now. What's important to me now is my relationship with Andy, feeling I have a soul mate.
  • "I have a wonderful social circle of female friends and get a lot of joy out of them.
  • "I love living in London, the theatre and opera, and going on exotic holidays.
  • "I don't expect to give up that happiness when I have children. By that time I think children will be the next logical step."

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