We seem to have a lot of information on various things in life; Nevertheless, we are sometimes tapping in the dark when we want to find out why certain things happen.

This came to my mind when I read an article about happiness and children written by Murskylä and Margolis and published in ”Demography“.

The authors compare Great Britain and Germany using the SOEP (socio-economic panel) for Germany and the British Household Panel survey for Great Britain. In their report, the authors look at the change in the levels of happiness before and after childbirth.

We have known for a long time that happiness levels in partnerships follow a U-curve: They are high at the beginning of the partnership, declining with the birth of the children, and increasing after the children have grown up, unless the couple divorce, of course. The study by Murskylä and Margolis now sheds a little more light on that issue.

Among other variables, the authors looked at the ages of the partners in question: The older the couple, the happier they are and the lesser the drop in happiness levels after the birth of their first child. Thus, when the couple have their child in late thirties, happiness levels drop after the birth, but not as significantly as with couples in their early twenties. On the other hand, happiness levels of couples in their early twenties fall significantly below the level of their early childless partnership. It is evident that older couples deal with the change involving the ”first-child shock“ better than younger couples. Even ten years after the birth there is a difference in happiness levels, with the happiest of younger couples still being not as happy as the least happy couple of their older counterparts.

There is an interesting remark by the authors interpreting these results: People imitate others in their behavior. Those who observe that happiness levels are higher when you have children at an older age and at a more financially stable time may postpone becoming parents to an older age.

If, in a group of friends, people get married the chance for others in that group to get married also rises. Similarly, if children are born in a group of friends, the probability of getting a child for other childless couples in that network rises too.

I find this an interesting argument: It seeks to explain the behavior not by way of structural issues such as the job situation or difficulty in balancing work and family life, but rather by way of integration in networks and by perception and imitation of other people’s behavior. When looking at imitation and integration, social networks may help in clarifying why so little is explained by way of structural measures, and why the results are so different across the European states regarding the influence of political measures. I reported on this in one of my previous blogs.

Imitation as a criterion for demographically relevant behavior is definitely underresearched.

Source: Mikko Myrskylä, Rachel Margolis, HappinessHappgreast: Before and After the Kids. Demography, Oct. 2014, Vol 51 pp 1843-1866.

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