Many of us assume that elderly people without children are lonelier and that their quality of life is lower compared to people with kids. But does the existing research on the subject support this assumption?
A new literature review conducted by Thomas Hansen, a researcher at the Norwegian Social Research (NOVA) institute based at OsloMet, might surprise you.
“There is little difference when it comes to loneliness, life satisfaction, and mental health between people with children and those without. It’s a myth that you have to have children to have a good life in old age,” Hansen tells us.
In his recently published article, the OsloMet researcher looks at international literature on ageing without children. He has conducted several studies in the past on childlessness and has also researched childlessness among younger adults.
Hansen’s research demonstrates that children have little impact on quality of life and happiness both among younger and older adults.
Having children does not affect happiness
Worldwide surveys have shown that about nine out of ten young adults plan to have children. Norwegian studies have shown that there are a number of reasons as to why so many people want to be parents. These include investing life with deeper meaning, meeting cultural expectations, experiencing emotional enrichment, and self-realisation.
At the same time, there is well-documented evidence that parenthood does not increase your sense of happiness. According to Hansen, the widespread perception that having children leads to more happiness is based on established myths about parenthood.
Some parents have difficulties, not because they don’t have children but rather because they do.– Thomas Hansen
“Children influence quality of life for better and for worse. Some parents experience difficulties not because they don’t have children, but rather because they do. This can be due to the child and the parents having a difficult relationship, the child experiencing problems, or the child becoming a source of disappointment and not meeting the parents’ expectations,” Hansen explains.
In previous research, Hansen has characterised children as “happiness thieves” because they bring with them different kinds of costs. Parents often worry more and experience things like sleep deprivation, a loss of personal freedom, financial costs, and negative effects on their careers and romantic relationships.
Life without children can be meaningful
Many people experience not being able to have children as a personal crisis. Involuntary childlessness, in fact, is ranked as one of the most important causes of stress in life. Research nonetheless indicates that few involuntarily childless people experience a lasting sense of loss and that most adapt and find other sources of meaning, connection and support.
“People handle involuntary childlessness in different ways. Some may even find this research provocative because they’ve borne the weight of childlessness as a great hardship their entire lives,” Hansen observes.
There are also several advantages of being childless, according to Hansen. Statistics from Australia, the UK, and the US show that those without children are happier, more content with their lives, and experience less psychological stress than parents with children living at home.
“It is important to keep in mind that it is possible to live a good life without children, particularly for involuntarily childless people who experience a great sense of grief over not having children. Research shows that most people will be fine in time,” says Hansen.
The crucial role of the welfare state
According to Hansen, there are international differences when it comes to how much children influence their parents’ quality of life. In countries where the welfare state is underdeveloped, life can be harder both for young adults with children living at home and elderly people without children.
This is because the elderly become socially and financially dependent on their children, and those without children are therefore more likely to experience inadequate social support, mental health problems, and loneliness.
Welfare services also help make life easier for young adults with children at home; for example, they make it easier to combine being a parent with having a career and pursuing hobbies and free-time pursuits.
The most important elements behind a high quality of life are a positive attitude, being outgoing, and making connections with other people.– Thomas Hansen
According to Hansen's research, the joy of being a parent is greatest in countries with more family-friendly policies and equality at home and work. Nordic studies are some of the only studies that show that parents are at least as happy and content as childless people.
“Good welfare schemes in Norway help improve quality of life for parents of young children, but also those of elderly people without children. They help to even out the differences, which is why the presence or absence of children does not have much of an impact on quality of life among young adults or the elderly,” Hansen explains.
Our attitude toward life has greatest impact on happiness
A natural consequence of not having children is not having grandchildren. Many elderly people experience their grandchildren as a positive addition to their lives, but being a grandparent has little effect on older people's quality of life:
“Elderly people who experience the joy of having grandchildren would probably have been just as fine without them since they would become involved in other things. Day-to-day contact with other people is a more important component of a happy life, and the elderly often have less contact with their children and grandchildren than they do with their partner and their friends,” Hansen elaborates.
Hansen explains that a good quality of life is primarily linked to your personality and genetic disposition. Objective factors are therefore not as important as many seem to believe.
“The most important elements behind a high quality of life are a positive attitude, being outgoing, and making connections with other people. If you have these qualities, your income and how many grandchildren you have play a lesser role. Your attitude towards life will determine whether you do well or not,” Hansen clarifies. He goes on to say:
“Many people may find it frightening to plan a life without children since it’s a very uncommon decision in life. Many people have children to ensure they’re not lonely, depressed, or isolated in old age, but in Norway, it’s a myth that children can function as an investment in one’s future quality of life.”
Why do we keep having children?
According to Statistics Norway (ssb.no), Norway has had record-low reproduction rates for the past three years. In the course of the last decade, Norwegian women have gone from giving birth to an average of close to two children to just over 1.5 children.
One important reason is the increasing average age at which women have their first child. Another is that women today are having fewer children than previous generations. There has also a slight increase in the number of women who have no children.
This trend has led politicians, including Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, to actively encourage members of general public to have more children. But why should we have more children if doing so won't necessarily make us any happier?
Having children is not a good strategy for becoming happier, but it is a good strategy for experiencing meaning and connection.– Thomas Hansen
“I don’t think the desire to have children is about a desire to be happier. We were born to live in groups and are terrified of being excluded. People have a psychological need for security, meaning, involvement, and belonging. Many of us probably think that having children is a surefire way of fulfilling these needs,” explains Hansen. He goes on to say that:
“Having children is not a good strategy for becoming happier, but it is a good strategy for achieving meaning and connection.”
Hansen does not think birth rates will continue to fall if prospective parents were to encounter his research findings. According to the researcher, the drive to have children is such an integral part of being human that it would take a great deal to dislodge it.