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“.

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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, 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

We hope you found this article useful. Don’t forget to download our 3 Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, our Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass© will help you understand the science behind meaning and valued living, inspire you to connect to your values on a deeper level and make you an expert in fostering a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students or employees.

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. selormaddipa@yahoo.com

    The Existentialist917, sheesh the Article and the comments were on point and brutal that’s what I like to see. But anyway I’m 28 years old male and still have a lot to learn. But one thing I promise myself was to learn from others and never make the same mistake as they have done. Marriage and having kids? yeah that I have come to a realization is a recipe for disaster! I read a quote once and it said “It takes a life time to understand oneself”. I’m 28 years old and still trying to figure who I am as a person, so what makes me think a 28 years old man going 30 (next year) will be capable of understanding the next person (wife) to the point an innocent child? All that will lead to is pure misery. At this point I’m more focused on my education, work and hobbies, and for the past few years all my classmates are having kids and getting married and for some reason I feel compelled to tell them their are making a mistake but who am I to tell the next person what to do with their life?

    And so with that I stay in my lane and mind my own business, I know for a fact I do not want any of society’s formula of life, I want to live my own life on my own terms, I cherish my freedom and I enjoy my solitude. Freedom is happiness and putting more limitations on your life (Marriage and kids) are just the few examples. I always tell myself “ Do not repeat the same tactics your grandparents and parents did, do better be better”.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi there,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sounds to me like you’re clear on what your values are (e.g., freedom and solitude). Knowing those, you’re in a great position to choose the formula for life that best suits you.

      God speed!

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
    • Allison

      I am 25 and have the same thought process. I grow and change so drastically every year, how can I commit to a partner yet or worse be locked in with that partner and kids. I think we already have enough stress in our lives, don’t really need kids to add to that. I would much rather focus on financial freedom (of some degree), travel, fitness, and having incredible experiences. If you’re interested, check out my blog https://everythingunconventional.com/ that I started because I felt the need to consolidate ideas about living a less traditional life, and like you mention, different than past generations.

      Reply
  2. Alice

    This article and articles like it fail to carefully consider parental happiness during different life stages. Obviously parents of young children will have different levels of happiness than parents of school age children or empty nesters. Hopefully most people don’t have kids because of how happy they think it will make them in the short term. Parenthood is a long term pursuit and should be considered as such. I once saw research showing that empty nesters with more kids have higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. I’d like to see more detailed research on parental happiness through different stages of life. Of course people without kids will initially experience higher levels of happiness. A guy sitting on his couch will have higher levels of happiness than a guy struggling up a mountain. But if you check in with them at a later date when the mountain climber has accomplished his climb and is in peak physical fitness, you might get different results. (No I’m not saying not being a parent is comparable to sitting on a couch. lol. I’m just trying to show that when you are doing something with levels of progression, the point in the journey where you check happiness levels is going to make a huge difference).

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Alice,

      Thanks for reading. You raise an excellent point about how parents’ happiness is likely to change depending on the age of the child. It happens that there is research that has tracked these trajectories from birth to age 18. If you take a look at some of the charts in this article, you can see the trend. Happiness reaches a high a few years before the birth of child and then dips after the birth and remains quite flat (or lowers further depending on other factors) particularly between birth and age 10. In no case does it rise back to the level before the birth of the child.

      Of course, there will always be other factors at play and differences between family units that can alter this trend. 🙂

      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
    • Matt

      This is only true if your values match the goal. Some people value family above all other things, and would be unable to feel complete if they did not complete that goal. Other people value their work above all other things. They may not feel accomplished if they do not reach a certain professional goal. Some people value spirituality above all things. In many cases, having children is not permitted for their goal. The point is to recognize the things that you value most, and to make a concerted effort to apply energy to those things. That is the way that one feels fulfilled.

      There is an assumption that children are a necessary piece of the puzzle for all people, but the reality is far more nuanced. The world and it’s resources have been taxed to a point that having children could be considered harmful. Similarly, putting children into a broken world can be harmful to the children and their progeny. I think considering these types of values should be just as important.

      Reply
  3. Man 42 without children

    Well, so far so good, happy without them for sure. Why I do not have children (yet)?…

    First because I haven’t found the woman I can say I want to live the rest of my life with her and not with any other.
    Second because actually since I passed 35 I don’t know if I want them. (Yes for some reason I did want them before, theoretically or emotionally at least). What a hustle and restriction in your life? I see it from all my friends, they don’t regret it, they like it, they do seem and probably might be happy too, but their personal life is over and if not completely over to a very large extent for sure. I love my life thank you.
    Third, cant get out of my head the idea that in truth we should not give birth to so many children, the earth is overpopulated 100% sure. In a similar pattern of thinking the human society world that is being created is not of my liking, ideals and ethical standards. Furthermore in the same pattern of thinking the future doesn’t look that promising for humanity.
    Fourth I definitely tell myself that having children is the most common and detrimental goal of everyone, seriously nothing special in it, everyone does it and it is certainly the easy thing to do even though it is so hard and demanding. It is the easy thing to do because everyone does it and looks highly of it. The hard choice is to not have children and live with the idea that you are missing out on something. The words of a friend of my parents echo in my ears “ a person is incomplete without children”, I say inside me sorry fu I don’t agree with you at all, but the words still echo and make me ponder, is she right about it?
    Fifth the idea and many times said, that children will be with you and take after you when your old. Common what bs is this, have children for being taken care off? Are we serious? Isn’t that the egotistical thing to do? people seem to have children to satisfy their own desires, weaknesses and holes in their lives by saying this and similar other things.

    However Im still very troubled in my mind and heart, do I want children ? Do I really want them? There is a part of me that Is truly fond of the idea and on the other hand I like my life and freedom and my carefree spirit. And should I ever make a discount/Compromise and have children even if I don’t find my relatively “perfect” wife for me?

    Reply
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