Why You Should Have Never Had Kids (If You Want To Be Happy, That Is)

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

With his work in positive psychology, Seph Fontane Pennock has been able to help tens of thousands of practitioners and educators all around the world. 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. JJ

    Crazy how the bitter anti-child brigade always turn up in these threads. They are obsessed with trying to find something to prove themselves right. Racked with self doubt?

    I see one genius low down the comments (“John”) even go so far as to say having children is ‘illogical’. Do you not understand how stupid that is?

    A lot of you people are going to be bitter and alone in your old age, shunted into state-run care homes and ignored (or abused, if you’re particularly unlucky) until you eventually do the state a favor and pass away.

    Good luck! Enjoy your extra vacations and gucci sunglasses in the meantime.

    Reply
  2. eschultz

    Lexi sounds like someone who is afraid of pain and change and either hasn’t had much life experience or has had horrible life experiences. She has the right to be selfish. Only Lexi can live her life for her.
    As a single mother who is the survivor of a relationship frought with abuse and a survivor of past mental and physical abuse, I cannot expect anyone to understand why I chose to have my daughter. My strength however benefits her. Whatever lessons I have learned in life I can pass to her. Having kids is not for everyone. Being honest about it is being true to themselves. Choosing to have kids is the buisness of those who have them and neither side needs to point fingers. I am glad we are all different people.

    Reply
  3. Candice

    Wow thank you for this. My last friend just had her second child. She has lost her figure (she still looks 6 months pregnant), her money, her sanity, all her friends and her marriage is ruined. My husband and I are retired YOUNG with lots of money, health, ability to travel, be intimate, sleep in, etc. I can no longer be around breeders. They scare me and remind me too much of the bullet I just dodged. Whewwwwww

    Reply
  4. CarlZurri

    People have societal pressure to breed, pressure from family to breed, and internalized self pressure to breed. They are sheeple and afraid they won’t be regarded as “normal” if they don’t breed. So they make kids and hope for the best. It’s pretty common nowadays to have kids who fail to launch, and kids to create their own kids who then get dumped on their patents, who now are stuck primarily or secondarily at the least, raising their grandchildren. For people who say ‘it’s just an 18 year commitment’, think again.

    Reply
  5. Todd Narruhn

    I love my child and as a single parent, my happiest moments are with her. It’s better than all the things I have done under the sun. I think the author needs to go back to school and/ or study the dynamics of empathy and love because the only thing I saw as being miserable is a myopic view of parenthood. Seriously, stop blogging and start thinking.

    Reply
    • Jonathan

      If you the most you’ve accomplished in life is popping out a kid then you haven’t done anything different from any other animal. I think YOU should go back to school and learn how to read and stop being terminally mediocre. Actually try to achieve something meaningful in life not just reproducing. Extremely pathetic!

      Reply
      • CarlZurri

        Completely agree with you Jonathan

        Reply
    • CarlZurri

      And of course what YOU experience is how everybody should also think and feel. Gtfo.

      Reply
  6. Jasmine North

    I never wanted children…..I prefer dogs, cats, horses and generally all non human animals. And after observing a sibling who ended up with an incredibly unintelligent, stunted adult child, I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t travel down that road.

    Reply
  7. Lexi

    I would rather chose happiness at the end of the day over meaning. What’s the point in having any kind of meaning in your life if it just makes you miserable? sort of unrelated but on the topic of happiness; unlike most people, I will actually admit to enjoy short bursts of gratification instead of waiting to achieve something long term. In other words, I would much rather have that flashy sports car right here and now instead of waiting 20 plus years to see if I raised a good child or not. I am not ashamed to admit this nor should others be. HAte me if you will, but throughout my life no one looked out for my happiness so I had to learn to find it myself.
    There are also many negatives when it comes to raising children that I don’t think I would be able to cope with if it happened to me:
    1. Giving up everything in life to raise a child who ends up hating you. I’ve personally seen this happen to a family friend, who is an AMAZING woman by the way who did nothing to deserve this treatment. The daughter even addresses the mother by her first name and she is over 20 years old. Sometimes I have a habit of calling my mom mother and she insists that I call her mom!
    2. Being a single mother to more than one child I did not even want. Oh sure, it’s so easy for a man to be a father every other weekend and enjoy his time off, but could you imagine doing all the hard stuff on your own? Trying to get the kids ready for school every day when they do not want to go, getting their lunch ready and probably sacrificing the time to make your own lunch, only to have the children complain about everything you packed for them? Oh, and how about getting home after work to cook dinner for everyone, and “helping” them with their homework after or anything else teachers tell parents what to do for their children that needs to be completed by such and such dates. Such as sience fair projects or costumes for school plays. It’s easy for the father to take the kid to the freaken park for chrissake!
    3. On a somewhat unrelated topic as well I also stay out of relationships in case I “fall in love” which is just dopamine chemicals produced from the brain, by the way and fades over time. Only to have him emotinally blackmail me with children after marriage. I most likely will have more money than any man who is interested in me, and if he refuses to sign a prenup and I agree to marry him anyway, it is my bigges tfear that he will blackmail me into doing anything I want for him (such as having children I do not want) otherwise he will divorce me and take me for everything I’ve got. I could never imagine being a single mother with more than one job only to support myself and a family that I never wanted. As I said before, it’s easy for the single father to bring the children to the park and back home again.
    4. Mommy and me clubs. Do I really need to barf? I will save you from that discussion as you probably know how horrible it is if you are forced to hang out with other mothers you do not like because you have to hang out with the parents of your child’s friends or your partner’s friends.
    Tell me that you are glad that I am not having any children and I will agree with you.

    Reply
    • Roberto Calderon

      @Lexi
      1) Yes I am very happy you are not having children because you would make a horribly selfish mother who in short order would be a manic mess who couldn’t even get out of bed let alone take care of a child.
      2) You clearly have trust issues that require some serious soul searching or therapy. You say things that make me think you have had some pretty crappy men in your life, and thus you are just broken now when it comes to trusting people.
      3) You also mention raising a child alone over and over as if you know in advance your marriage would fall apart and this man would then turn into a vindictive predator….. this speaks to a deeper issue….. you don’t know how to be happy alone…. so you can’t be happy with other people.
      4) You should be alone forever tell you learn how to love more than just yourself.

      Reply
      • CarlZurri

        You are a fluckin as hole and misogynist robert

        Reply
    • Not negative but realist

      So true, but when I was growing up in the 1960’s, getting married & having Children was like some kind of a goal & we were going to do it right by God & NOT make the same mistakes our Parents did. We of course didn’t understand all the dynamics behind having a Family. You learn that as you go along as if everyone knew what those dynamics were, essentially nobody in their right mind would do it. And it is cradle to the grave unless your Children end up to be successful financially. Even working a steady job is no longer the answer as the cost of living is so high for most so you end up helping them financially. Not everyone is cut out ending up with all the skills it takes to become financially independent or maybe they’re lazy so it’s hit or miss. Having a Family is indeed a tremendous sacrifice. I was a legal guardian of my Husband’s 4 younger Brothers & Sisters at age 19 as my Mother & Father-in-Law died prematurely. I though I was doing a good deed until things went South—my Husband ended up to be an alcoholic just like his Father & that complicated any & all problems. So I don’t have a relationship with those kids anymore after sacrificing like 10 years of my life so if I only knew then what I now know. It’s just not worth it although other folks do have happy endings to their stories despite the problems everyone has in life. But that, too is hit or miss as to whether or not that will actually happen & one won’t know until they go through it themselves if they choose to which very often young people will as they have alot of strength & hope which diminishes as you age because of the realities of life haven’t kicked in. So that’s why we continue to have Children (and now it’s not taboo to be single to have them). Ignorance truly is bliss!

      Reply
  8. Lindsay Miller

    “How about thinking of others first instead of ourselves? Raising children is actually not hard if you don’t think the sun revolves around you.”
    I’m in tears. I live with moderate to severe chronic pain & illnesses. This began bothering me when I hit my late 30’s. I wish I had been allowed the choice. I “live” with a my caregiver & was recently diagnosed late in life with autism spectrum disorder. I’ve been in poverty my entire life. Even though I put myself through college. I have to accept being dependant on others with no career nor raising a child. Not by my choice; I’m estranged from my birth family. I volunteer when I can. I don’t get the choice to have or raise a baby. It really hurts to hear I’m being selfish?! I have to do little things that help others in other ways. I have to be okay with focusing on my health, participating in activism, & quality of life. I know of past friends who are raising children bc they simply have the money & support to it. As I said I’m crying as I write this. Forgive me if I make a few mistakes in this comment. I’m not that lucky. If you had any idea what abuse I’ve had gone through & how difficult each hour is for me; maybe you’d not say it’s easy to have a baby nor raise 1 & say someone like me is selfish? It’s quite obvious you are lucky. However; clueless & cruel to say that. Not everyone gets to choose or born into a good situation with support. Nor does everyone get out of poverty or avoid chronic illness most their life. Actually our species has about 12 years to slow down the warming of our planet. Cites are running out of water like Cape Town. Overpopulation is a very significant part of it. I have a friend who’s going to speak on it for a local group I organize events/speakers for. I could argue that having babies is selfish. It hurts you think I’m being selfish. By responsibly trying to help those here? By not adding to our climate crisis? By volunteering my time to bring awareness to others. Bc I do get to choose to be better educated. It’s disheartening how many people are selfishly only caring about their family. It breaks my heart that I’m frowned upon by individuals who think like you. Learn how to keep our planet survivable for the next generations.

    Reply
    • CarlZurri

      The p.o.s.who said that obviously is a misogynist who thinks women are just for fun and breeding and raising his spawn.

      Reply
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