For a majority of parents, the year before and immediately after the birth of a first child is a significantly happier time than usual, according to a new study.
But after that, mothers and fathers generally return to their pre-baby happiness levels.
If the parents have a second child, there is again a rise in happiness levels before and after that baby arrives, but it's not as pronounced as the first time. And by the time parents have a third baby, any increases in happiness are negligible.
“The first two children contribute to happiness strongly, whereas the third does not," Mikko Myrskylä, a professor of demography at the London School of Economics and an author on the paper, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "And the timing of fertility is critical in influencing the experience of parenthood.”
The study, conducted by researchers with the London School of Economics and the University of Western Ontario, relied on data from longitudinal surveys conducted in Germany and the United Kingdom that measured parents' life satisfaction after having a child. (It did not examine cases of adoption, miscarriage or stillbirth.)
The research was published in the October issue of the journal Demography.
Parents who obtained higher levels of education, and who had children when they were age 35 or older, experienced the strongest gains in happiness around the birth of a child. Some of these parents continued to enjoy elevated happiness levels -- relative to before they had children -- for up to 18 years.
Younger, less educated parents, however, did not fare as well.
People who became mothers and fathers between the ages of 23 and 34 experienced increased happiness around the birth of a first or second child, but by one or two years later, their happiness had dipped back to baseline levels or below. People who became parents in their teens generally experienced overall declines in happiness.
For now, the researchers can only hypothesize about what causes these patterns. The run-up to a first birth is likely a happy time because it is linked with finding a partner, planning for the future and having frequent sex, Myrskylä speculated.
“The time with a new baby may be new and exciting, and parenthood, which comes with various new responsibilities, may bring a new sense of meaning and fulfillment in life,” he told HuffPost.
By the third child, though, that sense of newness has likely worn off, and parents may be dealing with additional financial pressures.
Myrskylä said that he and his colleagues were surprised not to find distinct happiness patterns in Germany and Britain, given the institutional and cultural differences between the two countries.
“This makes us think that, perhaps, the influence of children on well-being is not so strongly influenced by social norms and policy, and the documented associations might hold also in the United States,” he wrote.
The question of how parenthood affects happiness is one researchers have pursued for years -- with mixed results. A 2014 study in the journal Psychological Bulletin, for example, found that parents are unhappy to the extent they have to deal with financial stress, sleep disturbance and marital conflict. But, the study showed, when parenting allows opportunities to experience greater meaning, positive emotions and enhanced social roles, it can be a source of significant happiness and joy.
In other words, as a 2004 investigation put it, parenting is both “detrimental and rewarding.”
“You can find studies going either way,” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist who specializes in parenting, told HuffPost.
Though Kennedy-Moore praised the new study for analyzing happiness levels for years after a child is born, she added that "what it’s not capturing -- and what matters a lot -- is the momentary experience of being a parent."
"Turns out, they experience more positive emotions and have more meaning on a moment-to-moment basis,” she said.
Understanding how parenting influences happiness can in turn help researchers understand fertility behavior, Myrskylä said -- the questions of why people have children, why they have the number of children they do and how they time having those children.
But ultimately, at the personal level, the emotional effects of being a parent are something no research can capture.
“There’s no one right answer,” said Kennedy-Moore. “It’s a very individual question.”