LOS ANGELES—Single mothers are less happy than other American women. But over time, the happiness gap has shrunk, with single mothers saying they are happier than their counterparts from decades ago, a new study shows.
The report, published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies, tracks how women answered questions on a nationally representative survey between 1972 and 2008. When the researchers tried to tease out what made single mothers less happy, they found that the biggest factor was being single.
“The fact that they’re single seems to explain a lot of why they’re less happy,” said John Ifcher, assistant professor of economics at Santa Clara University. Making less money, a factor tied to decreased happiness in other studies, made a smaller difference than being single.
But over time, single mothers became happier as other women became somewhat less so, narrowing the gap between them, said Homa Zarghamee, assistant professor of economics at Barnard College. The exception was among married mothers: The “happiness deficit” between single and married moms did not change enough for the shift to be statistically significant.
The researchers weighed possible explanations of why single moms might be closing the happiness gap. The rise in happiness does not seem to be explained by the fact that more single mothers are raising kids with a partner, or by the changes instilled through welfare reform in the 1990s, they wrote.
Instead, Ifcher and Zarghamee suggested that single mothers may face less stigma than in the past. It might also be possible, they speculated, that more single mothers are having their children by choice as birth control became more widely available.
The happiness gap has shrunk as single mothers have become increasingly common, growing from 7 percent to 25 percent of American households with children from 1960 to 2011, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. Young adults are much less likely than their elders to think the rise of single motherhood is a problem, Pew found in a survey this year.
The new study was based on the General Social Survey, a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. Ifcher and Zarghamee plan to follow up on their research to see whether the trends changed after the recession hit in 2008.