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!?
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’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.
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