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. Judy

    Johnny Depp said it best: Hormones are God’s way of hoodwinking people into having children.

    Reply
  2. Father of one, not from US.

    With non-existent maternity/parental leaves and child support in the US, the argument for not having kids is understandable, as opposed to say Finland or Denmark. However, what is mind boggling is why the fertility rates are so much higher in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? In US, you have to give a job, a vacation, etc. In those countries you could be dead tomorrow and yet people have kids. Those who are on the fence, should pay close attention to this fact. Everything else is just first world problems/white whine. Worst things worst, if you are really such a snowflake and don’t have a lot of money find a job in Finland or another nordic country, move there and have kids there. It will be free for you and you may even get some stipends.

    Reply
    • Morgan Boyd

      Birth Rates are tied to women’s rights and health care. Allow women to get a post secondary education and a job and they will hold off having kids until later in life. Therefore they have fewer children due to age constraints.
      Improved access to health care means lower infant mortality. If you know you can have one or two children and they are likely to survive to old age you will most likely only have one or two children. If you expect several of your children to die before reaching reproductive age you are likely to have more of them. The countries you listed all have high birth rates, they also have high death rates.
      Currently Africa has the highest birth and death rates in the world, improving those economies to the point where everyone has access to health care and women are able to get an education and enter the workforce are paramount to controlling the growth of the worlds population.

      Reply
  3. Jim

    God punished me the day i was born unfortunately which i knew i was going to have a very extremely hard time meeting a good woman to settle down with to have a family. Then again which God created so many very horrible stuck up loser women these days too, especially when so many of us single men will try to start a conversation with a woman that we would’ve really love to meet. And then there are times we will get cursed at by these very mentally ill women for no reason at all, since i know friends that are having the same problem as well. Yeah, no wonder why many of us men are still single today. Very amazing how very different most women were back in the old days when they were the very complete opposite of today, and real ladies as well which made love very easy to find back then just like our family members did.

    Reply
    • MB

      Sounds like you are struggling by friend. My advice, if you would take it, is to look to yourself before you blame others. Self improvement is hard, but its the best way to improve the quality of your life. Start going to a gym every day, read some self help psychology books and some books on how to meet and talk to women. Learn some new skills and hobbies that are active. Join a club. Improve yourself and the ladies will follow. Good luck!

      Reply
  4. common

    Father of three. Absolutely agree with the article. If you have any expectations of pursuing personal goals AFTER you have kids, think again. Doing all the tasks around kids takes significant amount of time and energy and you just see your life/time slip away without experiencing achievement of what you deem important or positive. If I could turn back the hands of time…
    Thank you for the article though, it feels good that I am not the only one who made this mistake.

    Reply
  5. Pete

    I have 3 kids twins 8 and another 10.I went from 0 kids to 3 in 18months.I am originally from Scotland and do not have any family here.My wife’s parents were older and lived in a different part of the Country.I do agree the government here really does not help at all with families and children,compared to most European countries.
    The fact that woman do not get any paid maternity leave is pretty shocking to me.

    Anyway we got through it our marriage is still intact but has taken a few beatings.The kids seem happy enough,my oldest has ADHD which has been a challenge.
    I enjoyed this article.Happiness is fleeting and I realize that as a father I measure it by the happiness of our family unit and not my own happiness.Maybe that is right or wrong,

    Our expectations of family life has changed dramatically in the last 70 or so years.The media/Hollywood has projected this picture of what a family should be like which is usually picture perfect.This is all bullshit and the more we move away from this thinking the happier we will be.
    I am just happy we as a family have survived the last 10yrs intact that my kids are happy/healthy,and when I am on my deathbed hopefully at the age of 100 surrounded by loving family.I will be happy that I experienced and survived all that life through at me.

    Reply
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