Parents who fear they will suffer ’empty-nest syndrome’ when their children leave home have little to worry about, according to new research.

A study into which life stage is the happiest has shown that older people whose children have flown the nest are the most content.

Although parents often believe their children bring them joy the new study suggests that that parents do tend to be happier than non-parents in old age, but only if their kids have moved out.

People who have regular contact with adult sons and daughters but who do not live with them have more freedom and are often more financially secure, the research shows.

The study led by Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University in Germany found people whose children have moved out of the family home have fewer signs of depression and greater levels of satisfaction.

The research builds on previous studies which suggested that parenthood, social networks and marital status affect the well-being and mental health of older people, and this latest research looks at the effects of life stage and family status.

The research took into account 55,000 people over the age of 50 across 16 European countries asking them to rate their life satisfaction from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). The data showed that adults with grown-up children scored between 0.02 and 0.56 points higher on the scale.

Although not a huge difference, Dr Becker states that as it was such a large survey with thousands of respondents the numbers show real significance. He said ‘while children might not be the biggest driver of life satisfaction and happiness it has on average still a significant influence’.

The research team suggests reasons behind the results, finding that the stress levels of being a parent of younger children, associated with balancing the competing demands of childcare, work and personal life, decrease significantly once people get older and their children leave home. Equally once children have left home they can move into being social contacts and caregivers, adding a level of happiness and security to their parents’ lives.

Adult children can create a form of caring social group which brings the benefits of greater happiness, less loneliness, and acts as a support in stressful times.

Other benefits are that adult children could help their parents out financially and provide care when needed, outweighing any stress over the years in bringing them up.

In contrast to this, children who still live at home are shown to have a negative effect on well-being.

The conclusion to be drawn from the evidence appears to be that having a good social network corresponds closely to greater life satisfaction. Although older people with grown-up children tend to have a ready-made social group in the form of a family, those without children or family can experience the same benefits by having a close and caring network of friends or community around them. The key appears to be having close connections with whom people can share issues and problems.