It’s no surprise that first-time parents older than 35 are more educated and more socially and economically stable than their younger counterparts. It turns out that they are also happier, and stay that way for longer, than any other age group having children, according a new study published in the journal Demography.
The researchers, from the London School of Economics and the University of Western Ontario, examined data from about 8,000 parents who participated in the German Socio-Economic Panel and the British Household Panel Survey, to measure happiness in first-time parents in those countries in the years before and after they had their first child.
“The older you were when you had your first child, the stronger the happiness response was,” says Mikko Myrskylä, a co-author on the study and a professor of demographics at LSE.
These graphs show the happiness trajectory of parents in Germany (SOEP) and the UK (BHPS). The baseline of zero on the charts is the parents’ happiness level three to five years before having a child.
The 35+ set is the only group that feels sustained happiness above their pre-child states when they become parents, and they remain happier even as parents of tweens and teens—10 to 15 years into parenthood. Age and stability can reduce the stress associated with having children, according to the researchers—and establishing a career early can provide flexibility later in life for both parents, creating more time and resources for children.
The youngest parents in both countries, aged 18 to 22, don’t become any happier after they have a kid—in fact, parenthood seems to drag them down the happiness scale, leaving them less happy than when they were childless. Parents aged 23 to 34 have a short burst of happiness before and after their child’s birth, but after a couple of years, their happiness levels drop back at their pre-child baseline.
It is becoming increasingly common for people to wait until later in their careers to have children—companies such as Facebook and Apple will even pay to freeze employees’ eggs (a move that has sparked some debate). This latest study adds to a growing body of reassurance for those worried about a ticking biological clock—including recent studies showing that older mothers may live longer and that their children may be healthier and less accident-prone.
Of course, there are also plenty of studies showing that parents in general are less happy than their childless peers. And happiness is a fickle thing to measure, Myrskylä tells Quartz. The surveys he looked at asked how ”satisfied” or ”reasonably happy” respondents felt, though he said they also experimented to make sure questions phrased in different ways would have similar results. It remains unclear, however, whether the happiness described was, as the saying about parenthood goes, “all joy and no fun.”