Is the nuclear family a happier one?

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1. Traditional values

Tabloid newspapers and TV soap operas often portray a fairly bleak image of modern family life in Britain, with marriage in decline, divorce on the rise, generations of families living on benefits and struggling single parents.

Compare this to the domestic bliss of the 1950s nuclear family when a man and a woman married for life and raised happy children. Family life back then seemed idyllic.

Rationing had ended, new affordable houses were being built, wages had increased and unemployment was low. But was this nuclear family a myth nurtured by idealistic images from the post-war era?

2. Exploding the nuclear family myth

Modern families are complex and varied, but 1950s-style portrayals of the perfect nuclear family unit are still being sold to us today.

The Phillips family discuss the media's portrayal of the modern family. Clip from Real Families with Steve Evans.

3. Changing times and attitudes

Marriages may have lasted longer in the 1950s, but divorces were difficult to obtain and frowned upon by society. The swinging sixties, however, saw huge social changes and the introduction of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act.

As a result UK divorce rates soared between the 1970s and early 1990s to become some of the highest in the world, increasing by 4.9% in 2010 possibly due to strains on relationships caused by the recession. Despite this, in a recent BBC poll, four out of five people in a relationship said they were happy.

Unmarried couples are opting to cohabit more and put off getting married and having children until later on in life. With the average wedding costing around £20,000 many people are choosing instead to save for a house deposit.

Complex families

The modern family is increasingly complex and has changed profoundly, with greater acceptance for unmarried cohabitation, divorce, single-parent families, same-sex partnerships and complex extended family relations. Grandparents are also doing their bit – a study by Cardiff University showed that one in four working families rely on grandparents for childcare.

Research carried out by Cambridge University suggests that gay fathers have more interaction with their children and their kids tend to have busier social lives when compared to a traditional family.

Children in single parent families can be just as happy as those with both sets of parents, according to a 2014 survey by NatCen Social Research. The quality of the relationship with the primary carer matters most, rather than the number of parents.

4. The evolution of the modern family

Take a look at how families have fared through time, from the tight-knit post-war generations of the 1950s through to the present day, where family structures have become much more fragmented and complex.

A 1950s family watching television. Getty Images

In the 1950s women usually stayed at home to raise a family while their husbands went out to work. Increased wages and low unemployment meant that family life was a lot more comfortable than in previous years.

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1960s black family posing for the camera with tea cups. Getty Images.

The swinging sixties brought massive social and cultural changes as women demanded equality and began to forge careers for themselves. Divorce became easier and the birth control pill was introduced.

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A 1970s family on bikes. Getty Images

Families had to tighten their belts in the 1970s with strikes, rising inflation and increasing unemployment, but package holidays flourished with nine million Britons taking foreign breaks in 1973 alone.

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A 1980s family relaxing next to their car. Getty Images

For many people the 1980s signalled the end of the traditional family as divorce rates soared and unemployment hit an all-time high. As marriages ended, women found themselves becoming the primary breadwinners of the family.

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Modern hipster family. Getty Images

Today's modern families are cohabiting more as well as marrying and having children later on in life. The family unit is far more diverse and technology has altered the ways in which family members now communicate with one another.

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Two dads in a same-sex relationship feeding their son. Getty Images.

Same-sex partnerships are changing the way we perceive the family unit. Research into adoptive families headed by same-sex couples paints a positive picture of well-being within these relationships.

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Father watches his son playing on his mobile phone. Getty Images

Single parents are no longer stigmatised in the community and children are often happier with a lone parent, providing they have a good relationship with them. In 2013 there were 1.9 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK.

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5. Why are happy families important?

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is currently the only country putting happiness at the heart of government policy. But the West is catching on. Both France and Britain have launched enquiries into happiness to help guide national policy.

Economists are waking up to the fact that happiness is just as important to a nation's economy as its gross domestic product, although there are countless variables to consider including family, employment, education, age, health and marital status.

Economist Andrew Oswald has calculated that the value of happiness that each marriage can bring to an economy is worth around £70,000 annually.

Global happiness

The first World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations (UN) in 2012, addressed happiness on a global scale. Over a two year period it found happiness had increased in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and decreased in more industrialised countries.

According to the 2013 World Happiness Report sponsored by the UN, the top five happiest nations in 2013 were Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden. The USA came in at 17, followed by the UK at 22, Germany at 26 and Russia at 68. Rankings for Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain fell dramatically because of the impact of the eurozone crisis.

Being happy

Physical health is one of the most important variables to explain human happiness. A report from the Office for National Statistics found that people who are married, have jobs, own their own homes and live in rural areas are also more likely to be happy.

People are most satisfied during their teenage and retirement years, with happiness levels tending to dip during middle age.

6. What makes us happy?

With governments around the world increasingly focused on their citizens' wellbeing, which of these makes us more happy and fulfilled as a nation?


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Research shows that populations living in wealthier countries are no happier than poorer ones. However, spending wealth on others does make individuals happier.


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Endorphins released during certain types of exercise make people feel happier. Healthy people have stronger hearts and suffer less from depression and stress.