Neighbourhood, friends and sibling relationships matter most for children’s happiness, study finds

24 April 2014

Living in a good neighbourhood, having lots of friends and getting on well with brothers and sisters are more important to children’s happiness than growing up in a two-parent home, according to findings from the Millennium Cohort Study.

Researchers at NatCen Social Research analysed information on more than 10,000 seven-year-olds born across the UK in 2000-01. They looked at how often the children said they felt happy and how frequently they worried. Just over a third of children said they felt happy ‘all the time’ and nearly two thirds said they were happy ‘some of the time’. Only two per cent said they never felt happy.

Similarly, around a third of children never felt worried, with nearly two thirds feeling worried some of the time. Six per cent felt worried all of the time. Interestingly, the children who were happy all the time were not necessarily the ones who never worried – only 37 per cent of the happiest children reported never worrying.

Girls were more likely to report being happier than boys, but said they worried more often. However, parents were more likely to think that their daughters were unhappy than their sons.

Children in the smaller UK countries reported being happier than those in England: 45 per cent of Northern Irish children, 40 per cent of Scottish children and 39 per cent of Welsh children felt happy all the time, compared to 35 per cent of English children. Scottish children were the least likely to worry.

Good relationships with siblings more important that living with both parents

Children who always got on well with their brothers and sisters were significantly happier than only children and those who got on less well with their siblings. Having fun with the family at weekends was also strongly associated with happiness and lack of worry.

Children living with lone parents or step parents did not report being less happy or more worried than those from two-parent homes. However, lone parents were more likely to say that they thought their children were unhappy.

Living in a good neighbourhood more important to children’s wellbeing than owning home

Children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods were significantly less likely to be happy and significantly more likely to worry than those living in more affluent areas. Interestingly, whether the family owned or rented their home and children’s eligibility for free school meals were not associated how the children felt.

Children whose parents were in manual jobs were happier and worried less than those whose parents were professionals or managers. However, unemployed parents and those struggling financially were more likely to think that their children were unhappy.

The authors noted that these findings suggest public health policy should not only focus on the family, but also take into account the wider neighbourhood.

Bullies were less likely to be happy themselves

Children who bullied other children or were bullied themselves were less happy and worried more. Children who said they had ‘lots’ of friends were happier than those who said they had ‘some’ or ‘not many’ friends.

Happy children like PE lessons

Children who enjoyed Physical Education (PE) at school were significantly more likely to be happy and worry less those who did not enjoy PE lessons. Diet and other forms of exercise were not related to happiness.

Read the full report

Predictors of wellbeing’ by Sally McManus, Jenny Chanfreau and Cheryl Lloyd was published by NatCen Social Research.

Media coverage of this story

The Independent: Children ‘no less happy in single-parent homes', study finds

Daily Telegraph: Eating your greens will not make you happy, finds Government-backed study

Medical Xpress: Researchers study happiness of children in different family compositions