When it comes to who is happier, people with kids or those without, most research points to the latter.
Now it seems that parents are happier than their peers later in life – when their children move out.
Most surveys of parental happiness have focused on those whose children still live at home. These tend to show that people with kids are less happy than their child-free peers because they have less free time, sleep and money.
Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University in Germany and his colleagues wondered if the story might be different for parents whose kids have left home.
To find out, they analysed data from a European survey that asked 55,000 people aged 50 and older about their emotional well-being.
They found that those with children had greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression than people without children, but only if their kids had left home (Becker, Kirchmaier & Trautmann, 2019).
This may be because when children grow up and move out they provide social enrichment to their parents minus the day-to-day stress of looking after them (Becker, Kirchmaier & Trautmann, 2019). The researchers also believe they may also give something back by providing care and financial support to their parents.
The picture is similar in the US, says Nicholas Wolfinger at the University of Utah. He recently analysed 40 years of data and found that empty-nest parents aged 50 to 70 were 5-6% more likely to report being very happy than those with kids still at home.
If parents baulk at the idea of waiting for their kids to move out to maximise their potential happiness, they could move to a country with better childcare support, says Wolfinger.
A 2016 study found that parents with children at home were slightly happier than their child-free peers if they lived in places that have paid parental leave, generous childcare subsidies and holiday and sick leave, like Norway, Portugal and Sweden.
Becker, C., Kirchmaier, I. & Trautmann, S.T. (2019) Marriage, parenthood and social network: Subjective well-being and mental health in old age. PLOS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218704.