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 🙂


 

parenthood paradox parenthood gap

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“.

 

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, J., Simon R.W., Andersson M.A., 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!?

Right.

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, T., Slagsvold, B., Moum, T., 2009), even though men are a lot more likely to view childlessness as disadvantageous (Blake, J., 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 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 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’sStumbling 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

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.

Best,

Seph

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

Blake, J., 1979, Is Zero Preferred? American Attitudes toward Childlessness in the 1970s, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 245-257

Gilbert, D., 2006, Stumbling on Happiness

Glass, J., Simon R.W., Andersson M.A., 2016, Parenthood and Happiness: Effects of Work-Family Reconciliation Policies in 22 OECD Countries, AJS. 122(3): 886–929. (Available here)

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, Volume 94, Issue 2, pp 343–362

Nozick, Robert, 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Raj Raghunathan, 2016, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?

Tim Urban, The Experience Machine Thought Experiment, published on Wait But Why

About the Author

Seph Fontane Pennock, BBA, is the co-founder of PositivePsychology.com. Seph strongly believes that we can deal with most of life’s absurdities by leveraging human connection and challenging ourselves, instead of using dogma or pharmaceutical drugs.

Comments

  1. lee

    Mother of 3, gave up a good paying job after the 3rd one. My own family members do not wish to help me in babysitting at all. My husband works hard and late day in day out for the family but he has no time for the kids.
    Happiness index: zero.
    Fulfilment? Zero too.

    Reply
    • Karen

      Did you expect your family members to help baby sitting?

      Reply
  2. Never Again

    I had one child, a son, forty years ago; I almost lost my life to toxemia, and did not have any more children. If I had it to do again, I would have zero; this world is too cruel; the choice would not be for my happiness, but to prevent the suffering of another human.

    Reply
  3. Leana

    I am extremely happy having a child. I love her more then anything in the world. Yes there are challenges but the amount of happiness my child brings to me highly outweighs the sacrifices. There’s nothing like having your child wrap their arms around you in the morning and Tell you “mommy I love you” we go to theme parks, ice cream, parks, parties…. kids help you feel the majic of what it’s like to be a kid one again and holidays are much more enjoyable. I feel like this is a biased article…. there are many people who can’t have children and they’d do anything to become parents. For those who don’t want kids, don’t have them, don’t make your kids miserable. Those who already had kids you made that choice and your children count on you to teach them. They love you unconditionally. Shame on you who complain.

    Reply
  4. MamaSquid

    Thank you for your article. I am 36 and pregnant with my first child. As a long – time sufferer of clinical depression and PTSD, I have spent many years learning the difference between happiness and meaning. I’ve been helped tremendously by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which emphasizes values – based living in the face of chronic terror or despair. What most of us think of as happiness is really a more superficial level of in – the – moment contentment, but there is a world of profound meaning waiting to be uncovered in every life, and people are willing to suffer quite profoundly in the moment in order to get at a deeper and more fundamental level of satisfaction. This is why, despite my chronic struggle with depression, I wouldn’t call myself an unhappy person. Whatever my current mood in any given moment, my life is full of meaning – because of how I spend my time, the relationships I nurture, the values I embrace in my nonprofit career, my fiction writing, etc.

    So I can see how similar principles might apply to having a child. As my pregnancy has already begun to interfere with the things that traditionally have given my life meaning, I think I’m going to have to scale back and find some new ones – but that’s okay. There are a lot of ways to make meaning. I’m excited about the ones I haven’t yet discovered.

    I’ve wanted a child for ten years, but thus far pregnancy has only complicated my life and made it more difficult. That’s okay, too. Often, easing our suffering begins with letting go of our idealized vision of how we’re supposed to be feeling… I’ve learned that countless times throughout this difficult pregnancy and in my study of Zen principles more generally. Though it may be socially controversial not to express joy during every waking moment of pregnancy and motherhood, I’m allowing myself to be unhappy, without judgment nor indulgence, when the feeling arises. I’m learning to accept my limitations. I’m taking the pressure off the need for this to be a perfect experience. Anytime I find myself really afraid of what parenthood has to bring, I keep coming back to this, knowing I’m already in the practice of making meaning out of less than ideal circumstances, and I think I am going to be all right. If I’m perfectly honest, I even think we are going to have a lot of fun as a family.

    Reply
  5. The Bad Guy.

    Sorry but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of de-emphasizing personal happiness. My personal belief is that if you’re living life and you’re not happy and not aiming to be happy, then what ARE you doing? Collecting money? And unless you’re Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar or someone like that, any concrete accomplishments that you make will be forgotten 20 years after you die.

    For most of my life I didn’t want kids, and I got talked into it by my wife, who was in turn talked into it by her parents (I didn’t make that connection until it was too late). And I get along great with my kid but constantly find myself at odds with other parents, who largely share none of my values and seem to actively seek out misery and complain about their lives on Facebook. My sister in law earns 150k, has two kids, and comes home after working her 12 hour day to clean the floor and get the kids ready for bed before collapsing into bed herself. What kind of life is that?

    I love my son. I’m doing my best. But I am absolutely miserable and unlike many parents, I am self aware enough to realize it. I can make the best of it for the sake of the little guy but I won’t indulge in doublethink and I won’t lie to myself and try to say that, well, happiness wasn’t that important anyway. That sounds like sour grapes. Happiness damn sure is important. It’s everything. You don’t have to live a hedonistic lifestyle to see and feel that imho.

    And I would absolutely use that opiate simulation machine. I’d use it to hell.

    I mean really, life is not all that hard, but people actively try to make it hard. Perhaps I just don’t belong with the rest of the human race… This quest for misery – I will never understand it. Never.

    Reply
    • Yurms

      Oh my Lord, I hope you get notified of this comment because I just want to say I feel the exact same way. I do my best with my THREE kids…to the point where a lot of people (including my kids and wife) consider me a good father, but I AM miserable. I didn’t plan to have any of my kids. I kinda just rolled with the punches, but if I had it my way, id choose to do a ton of other things that not only make me happy, but fulfill me instead of raising a family.

      Reply
    • Never Again

      “Life is not that hard….” Apparently you are younger than 40. You might change your mind over the next 20 years.

      Reply
    • Sheila

      I’m a mother of 4, and to be honest all of life’s ups and downs would have been a lot easier to get through if I want so worried about these kids.
      And now two of the four are legal adults telling me I destroyed their life.
      Whatever, seriously I whole hearted agree with the article the happiest we are is before we have kids and after the last one leaves and God help us if we say it in front of them cause the rest of your life you will hear about how traumatized it made them.
      And I agree with the last commenter, I was convinced how great it all would be by my mother too.
      Who also suffered her entire life raising her kids. Then pushed them all away after they grew into adults.
      If I was alone, is be on a cruise with my husband enjoying my life.
      But instead I raised these children so I could have a more meaningful senior life and so far they are just screaming in my face that I suck.

      Reply
  6. Anita

    Thanks for the article. I had a late marriage (at 34) and my husband is 18 years older to me. We both are very happy in our lives and love to travel. However, living in a country like India where everyone just likes to poke their nose in other people’s lives and blatantly ask about why you are not having children is not an easy task. Some look at us with suspicion as if there is some fault in us…..even my family….who had reluctantly agreed to my marriage (mind the age Gap) keep forcing me to have children while we seriously do not wish to. They feel I will be alone in my old age with noone to look after. My two sisters have two kids each and I am looked at with ridicule. I just take happiness as it comes and do not feel the need for children….I am too busy in my job and whenever we have time….we explore the world. While this article is comforting…I do sometimes get scared of what the future will hold.

    Reply
  7. Rebeca Anderson

    Amazing, you aren’t telling people to not have children, you are just saying that we shouldn’t put on our children the responsibility for our happiness, we should question why we want to have children and have for the right reasons, because when they are born is all about serving them, support them in THEIR dreams and not use them to fulfill our own expectations.

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Exactly Rebeca. Glad to see you actually read the article 😉

      Reply
    • Never Again

      Unfortunately, The Greatest Generation” never saw it that way….The Boomers were nothing but property to serve them.

      Reply
  8. Teresa

    I am happy to have come across this article . Since I turned 30, I have a renewed sense of wanting to be a parent. I have still have many moments, as someone who has struggled with the mental health, and after seeing best friends whose lives seem completely consumed with their children’s wants and needs, where I wonder if I want it. If I can do it.
    I really appreciated the description of the fleeting nature of happiness ( ‘Happiness fades with the first punch that life throws at you’)- for me, in my life, and in my struggles with mental health, it is so true. In order to strive for balance, happiness cannot be my own end-all, be-all. It’s too fickle. I can’t define it concretely.
    Instead, I do believe I search for meaning in my work and relationships and when I think about having children. I have definitely felt the need to take care of someone else, and to make my life not just about me.
    Thank you, Seph (what a fantastic name), for this article. I appreciate the insight and the comments from readers.

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      My absolute pleasure Teresa.

      Reply
    • Barbara

      Hello Teresa

      I think I share a lot with you. I also have some struggles with metal health and want to influence the world in a positive way. And being 30 I’m quite anxious if I should have child(ren). However, I don’t know if that would be the right thing, as being a bit depressed may results in not that happy children – for both genetic and environmental reasons. So that the life may not be a gift to them, but rather a burden (as I often see my life). Also, considering overpopulation, every new life is a burden to the earth. So I wonder – what is your opinion on that matter? I don’t mean to attack you – I’m just genuinely curious of other point of view to maybe revision mine.

      Reply
    • The Bad Guy.

      I don’t know what issues you have but Ill say this – I have Asperger’s and inattentive adhd. Before having a child I structured my life around my strengths and kept my stress very low, also worked out constantly. I’d never seen the inside of a psychiatrists office since I was able to manage my own care. You wont be able to do that with a child. Sleep patterns, destressing techniques… it all goes to hell. 4 years into the parenting life now and I’m on 3 different medications and depression is a major, major problem for me.

      I’m not saying it won’t work. But really think about your current coping strategies and how having a child would affect them. Because I know from experience that I can’t say, I’m sick, or I’m in a panicky mental state, or I’m overwhelmed with depression and just want to sleep for 20 hours today. I don’t get to indulge in self-care. I just have to put on my best face each day and be a dad. It’s non stop. Just keep it in mind and be ready for that marathon should you decide to run it.

      Reply
  9. John

    I get the idea of focusing on achievement over happiness, but where that thinking fails with having kids is… it’s not an accomplishment. It doesn’t provide any real “meaning.” Everyone can do it, it’s not special, it doesn’t mean you achieved or accomplished anything whatsoever in your life. It’s extremely mediocre and just kicking the can down the field, hoping your kids do something more useful than you did. If you’re going to accomplish absolutely nothing and just work some mundane job, you SHOULD focus only on happiness since you can’t achieve anything of note. Having kids doesn’t absolve you of being a loser. If I can’t achieve great and meaningful things, at least I’ll maximize my own happiness, rather than failing at both like most parents.

    Reply
    • The Bad Guy.

      Exactly how I feel. Once you have kids your own chances of real greatness, slim as they are for us all, are gone. Tesla said that it is impossible to reach your own true potential if you marry and have a family, which logically makes perfect sense.

      A lot of people seem to have this idea that they’re cashing in their chips and hoping the next player will do better than they did. Then later of course, they pressure their own kids to give up their own dreams in order to provide some grandkids.

      There’s a lot of duality with parenting. People call childless people selfish but since becoming a parent I have met plenty of awful, self-centered parents who view their child as a possession they can brag about, like a nice car. Parenting is not a real dream for many of them – it’s a milestone, something to do. And don’t even get me started on some of the narcissistic crap I’ve seen from grandparents.

      Reply
      • Helena

        Wow. I’ve always sort of felt this. People love to talk about the selflessness of parenthood and in so many ways it is, but, I just think so many people have too much ego wrapped into it. It’s a performance. It’s a way to show off and have your child be better than the others.
        On the other side, my childless friends are truly some of the most selfless people I know. They listen, they have empathy, they make time for me. I do have two children , but, I’ve never felt selfless. I think many of them wanted children and they’ve really had to choose happiness in their grief. I think that’s where the empathy comes from. In some ways for me me, it felt like something I had to do.

        Reply
  10. Happy without

    Personally, my partner and are both very comfortable with not being parents. The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with our decision.

    There were many different factors that influenced our decision, the biggest being climate change. My partner works in the environment sector and future predictions on climate change are pretty dire. We both felt that the world does not need the burden of another person, particularly a first world person.

    We both work part time in work we enjoy and while we may not be materially rich, but we love our lives and we have time to enjoy them and pursue other interests, even if that means just being able to spend an afternoon pottering in the garden, going for a walk in nature or reading a book.

    Our friends who have kids are good parents, but I really feel for them. They seem to be in a constant state of just going through the motions in life, with no time to look after themselves or for personal reflection. I feel like I would find it very hard to be happy with no time for myself.

    So for those who have chosen to be parents, I wish you very well, it is not an easy road you have chosen, but I’m sure it is very fulfilling also.

    For those who are thinking that parenthood is not for them, I’d say you don’t need kids to be happy. My life is simple, quiet and very happy without children.

    Reply
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