Why You Should Have Never Had Kids (If You Want To Be Happy, That Is)
Update September 2019: Wow. It’s been two years since I published this post and the comments are still pouring in.
Reading these comments will teach you more about human nature than the article will because of the strength of human biases (especially cognitive dissonance reduction and confirmation bias) that is being portrayed.
Please read the article before leaving a comment. Thanks.
Do you think having children makes you happier?
If so, think again.
Research shows (over and over again) that having children reduces happiness (e.g. Anderson, Russel, & Schumm, 1983 or Campbell, 1981), even though parents think it will make them happier.
This phenomenon is known as “The Parenthood Paradox” or “Parenthood Gap“.
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Why don’t children make parents happier?
One of the dominant explanations for this is that children increase the amount and level of a variety of stressors that parents are exposed to (Glass, Simon, & Andersson, 2016), such as:
- time demands
- energy demands
- sleep deprivation (potentially starting a vicious circle)
- work-life balance disturbances
- financial burden
It goes without saying that all of these stressors apply even more to the lives of single parents. This is why single parents report the lowest levels of well-being compared to married or unmarried couples who are living together.
To make matters worse, people generally become less satisfied with their marriage when they have children (making the attempt to fix a marriage by having children even more ironic).
Research shows the disadvantages of parenthood to be the strongest in the United States. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
When parents are at their happiest
In his seminal work “Meanings of Life“, Roy Baumeister tells us that there are two happiness peaks in the lives of adults in America, namely:
- between the wedding and the birth of the first child
- between the departure of the last child from home and the death of one’s spouse
So if you’re looking at children from the perspective of personal happiness, the phases of the married life without children are the happiest periods. Yet another argument against having children for the sake of personal happiness (what’s the score, 3 to 0 for not having children now?).
The good news
I can hear you thinking… but there’s got to be an explanation for why we’re making children, right? Otherwise, we would never have gotten this far as a species!?
And there is.
Because as emotionally taxing as having children may be, it has also proven to be a great source – if not the most powerful source – of life satisfaction, self-esteem and meaning, especially for women (Hansen, Slagsvold, Moum, 2009), even though men are a lot more likely to view childlessness as disadvantageous (Blake, 1979).
This is true even, or even more so, during tough times and is illustrative of the fact that cognitive evaluation (what you think) and emotions (what you feel) are not on the same continuum.
I.e. we can value something and find it meaningful even if it detracts from our happiness in the moment.
In the words of Baumeister:
“Sometimes the quest for meaning can override the quest for happiness.”
But wait a minute.
That sounds familiar…
Would you plug in?
Do you remember Robert Nozick’s thought experiment of the Experience Machine?
He asked people to imagine a machine that would provide them with only pleasant experiences as soon as their brain was hooked onto it. Let’s say it’s a machine triggering dopaminergic and endorphinergic activity in the brain without building habituation or tolerance and without side-effects.
Would you choose to be hooked onto that machine?
Most people said “no” even though, rationally speaking, it would make sense to do so. That is, if your goal is to maximise happiness for yourself, which is the case for hedonists and certain types of utilitarians.
Like one of my favorite writers Tim Urban (n.d.) remarks:
“In the end, I think I probably would skip the machine. And that’s probably a dumb choice.”
This brings us back to the Parenthood Paradox.
A possible explanation for why the negative impact of having children on personal happiness is the highest in the United States might be its extreme focus on personal happiness (and hedonistic values).
There I said it.
The Parenthood Gap exists because of unrealistic expectations and desires regarding personal happiness.
And research (e.g., Glass et al., 2016) is indeed pointing in the direction that the more individualistic a society is, the greater the Parenthood Paradox is (the level of financial support from the government being another important factor).
All this leads us to the real paradox…
The real paradox is not the Parenthood Paradox, but why people seemingly strive for personal happiness even though they would choose meaning and/or life satisfaction (subjective evaluation of one’s life as a whole) over personal happiness when push comes to shove.
It goes to show that, once again, we not only suck at predicting what will make us happy (as explained in Dan Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness“), but also at valuing our personal happiness compared to other things, such as meaning in life.
And besides… happiness is so fragile.
Happiness fades with the first punch that life throws at you.
The solution is to avoid falling prey to the illusion that happiness results from meeting your ideal version of life.
Rather than holding on to an image of what a happy life should look like and comparing it to your current life, you can allow life to unfold with unexpected moments of happiness.
Having children will not make you happier, nor does not having children.
It is not what life offers, but what we believe that life should offer that prevents us from experiencing happiness.
So let go of your expectations and lower the importance of your personal happiness. Thereby you will lower the stress you experience from not being as happy as you think you should be.
In his book “If You Are So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy“, my friend Raj Raghunathan remarks:
“Because when one pursues happiness, one is likely to compare how one feels with how one would ideally like to feel, and since we generally want to feel happier than we currently do, we are likely to feel unhappy about being unhappy if we pursue happiness!”
This, Raj. This.
And not only do we feel unhappy about being unhappy, we can start to feel even more unhappy because we don’t know why we aren’t happy, especially if we have all the reasons to be happy.
But that’s a song for another time.
Please enjoy your parental unhappiness, for you have all the reasons to.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Anderson, S. A., Russel, C. S., & Schumm, W. R. (1983). Perceived marital quality and family life-cycle categories: A further analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 127-139.
- Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Blake, J. (1979). Is zero preferred? American attitudes toward childlessness in the 1970s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 41(2), 245-257.
- Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York, NY: Vintage.
- Glass, J., Simon, R. W., & Andersson, M. A. (2016). Parenthood and happiness: Effects of work-family reconciliation policies in 22 OECD countries. American Journal of Sociology, 122(3), 886–929.
- Hansen, T., Slagsvold, B., & Moum, T. (2009). Childlessness and psychological well-being in midlife and old age: An examination of parental status effects across a range of outcomes. Social Indicators Research, 94(2), 343-362.
- Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Raghunathan, R. (2016). If you’re so smart why aren’t you happy: How to turn career success into life success. London, UK: Vermilion.
- Urban, T. (n.d.). The experience machine thought experiment. Retrieved from https://waitbutwhy.com/table/the-experience-machine
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What our readers think
I can’t believe that nowhere in this article did the words “sex” and/or “procreation” come up. You know, the act that brings children into this world of ours? The argument here is that the reason people keep having kids even if they know it’s gonna be a lot of trouble is because they value meaning over happiness. I have two arguments against that:
1. Birthrates decline the most in cities among the most educated, so those who would be more likely to have knowledge of the science that childhood makes people unhappy, as well as among those who face the most expenses and are less likely to afford taking care of children. People aren’t taking on parenthood despite knowing all the hardship and extra burden it’ll cause in their circumstances… at most they’ll have one or two kids and won’t keep going, even if they do believe having kids will give them more meaning in their lives, because they know it’d be irresponsible of them and they might not be able to provide for them on top of the difficulty.
2. Nature. Existence and biology doesn’t care how happy we are. The only purpose of life in this universe is to multiply exponentially, by any means necessary. Our minds make it so that we want to procreate as much as possible, we’re lucky that our minds are complex enough to take in other factors and control ourselves. Plus, nature has to take into account that it’s not enough to procreate but for our offspring to successfully reach the age to also procreate. Our biology makes sure that having sex is the greatest feeling we could possibly have, something we want as much as possible, then it doesn’t care how we feel afterwards. Thankfully humanity was smart enough to come up with technology to help us enjoy all that without the consequences, or else humanity would be having even more problems if all of us were bringing in 3+ kids on average (if you think there’s too many mouths to feed today as it is, just imagine the statistics with a rate like that!)
So why does humanity keep procreating? Because multiplying ourselves is the #1 thing all living creatures were designed to do… from whales to humans to ants, and right down to viruses…
Ever heard the term “happy little mistake”? Not everyone plans to have kids, sometimes it just happens. No search for meaning behind it for all of us. I’ve known people who didn’t get any meaning or happiness from having kids, unfortunately. They just did it because their parents did, or societal pressures, and having those combined with their sexual desires. No one knows how their kids will turn out or how good or bad they’ll be as parents or how much happiness/fulfillment it’ll bring them. It’s a gamble, like most things in life.
I am way too mentally unstable to provide for a child what it needs to be happy and thriving person. My parents were way too mentally unstable to have me. In fact, I am screwed up the way I am because of that. I won’t repeat their mistake. I am sad I will never be in a place where I can have a child, but it would be a huge disservice to bring a person into my chaotic mental health issues. I resent that anybody would find me “selfish” for that, or tell me that I’ll never get to experience a satisfied or fulfilling life because of it. I don’t want someone’s pity, or judgement of my decision, just as I don’t pity or judge people who chose to have children. Why is anyone in a competition to see who is the happiest or saddest? Just respect your fellow human and whatever choice they made regarding their own life.
I appreciate you honesty Eve and I respect your decision. May God bless you…
I am so glad I never had kids. Everyone I know who had kids turned into the most selfish, self-centered people whose marriage ended up suffering because they obsessed over their children and ignored their spouses. When their kids grow up and move out, the spouses barely know each other because their marriage was so child-centric that they never spent any time with each other. They either end up getting divorced or living like roommates. No thanks.
If I could buy you a beer, I would! Could not agree more! No one can deny that when your friend group consists of folks who’ve not had kids (yet), and one member of the group has their 1st child, y’all can count that friend out of 90% of your group outings in perpetuity.
In addition, as you said, children become the priority and receive 95% of a mother’s attention – leaving the father feeling over-burdened by the responsibility of providing for everyone and unappreciated by his exhausted wife.
I agree with the author of this article that most people gain meaning and purpose from being parents. Of course they do, just as having a dog/cat/etc. gives people joy, fulfillment, and the feeling of being loved unconditionally as well as needed.
However, when someone sacrifices their own needs, wants, & happiness for the sake of being needed by others, or for the purpose of being useful to, and appreciated by, others, it begins to look a lot like what’s known as “being codependent,” which isn’t healthy.
I sometimes wish I didn’t have children, but at the same time I hate myself for thinking that and can’t imagine being happy without them anyway. The truth is I don’t go through life each day trying to be happy or trying to find my own happiness. I spend every day trying to make my kids happy and nothing I ever do is good enough and it feels like an exhausting waste of time that just makes me depressed. I’m not under any illusions that parenting should be easy or fulfilling. I just wish it wasn’t so thankless and relentless. I sometimes wish I wants even alive. I’m not as strong as some parents to cope with the constant struggle that is parenting. We just got home from a week holiday at the beach. It wasn’t fun at all. You would think the kids would enjoy it and appreciate it, but no. Instead they just made me realise that they are never happy or grateful and I just wasted all my time and energy trying to give us all an enjoyable holiday.
People should not have kids. You never know how they will turn out, even if you are a very good parent, and having a child who makes bad decisions constantly as an adult will stress you the hell out. And if they have a child and are a crappy parent, you will really be stressed the hell out. Save your money and your sanity and don’t have a child. Get a pet instead.
Monkey Boy has a cat. Only someone who’s a couple of innings short of a ballgame would want to have human children. In other words: If you want a family, get pets!
This article, written in 2017 by a business/entrepreneur male, made up of quotes mainly from other males, looks on the cover like an article supporting the choice to not have children, but is really more of an attempt to convince otherwise. It contains some really outdated research studies, 70s, 80s and 90s, from 30 to 50 years ago that are no longer very relevant to 2017 and especially not 2022. A lot has changed even in the last 5 years since this article was written. In fact the recent events in the last 6 weeks alone will have a historic impact on declining population and maybe hasten it further. The driving force behind the criticism towards the declining population and the choice to not have children is fear based on financial issues that will result for big money companies.
I hate hate the children when I complain about them the parents if U can call them that when I complain they say there are only children so what!!!!vthen I say we both live here control your child most times the parents are worth than their kids and no responsibility I live here to and when they break up my mind is supporting them