The Frontal Cortex

Happiness and Children

Ronald Bailey looks at the data and concludes that having children doesn’t make us happy:

“Economists have modeled the impact of many variables on people’s overall happiness and have consistently found that children have only a small impact. A small negative impact,” reports Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert. In addition, the more children a person has the less happy they are. According to Gilbert, researchers have found that people derive more satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than taking care of their kids. “Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework,” asserts Gilbert in his bestselling, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).

Of course, that’s not what most parents say when asked. For instance, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey people insisted that their relationships with their little darlings are of the greatest importance to their personal happiness and fulfillment. However, the same survey also found “by a margin of nearly three-to-one, Americans say that the main purpose of marriage is the ‘mutual happiness and fulfillment’ of adults rather than the ‘bearing and raising of children.'”

Bailey goes on to reconcile this contradiction by asserting that people with kids only say their kids are so important because that’s what they’re expected to say. If they could be honest (or at least a little self-aware), they’d realize that kids are a big pain in the ass.

Color me skeptical. Sure, it would be nice if we could skip the whole kids phase and go straight to having grandkids. And I’d like a puppy that tasted like chocolate. But I think that the supposed disconnect between kids and happiness – the reason people say they would rather clean the dishes than change a diaper – has more to do with the way we measure “happiness” than with the actual happiness generated by having kids. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis that it is to quantify something as intangible as “meaning” or “love”. But just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important. I actually think one of Bailey’s commenters nailed the issue:

I am guessing that if you surveyed marathon runners at various intervals during the race, they’d complain about how miserable they are. Upon crossing the finish line, they would talk about the overall achievement and how wonderful it was. Same with raising kids.


  1. #1 Ian
    February 28, 2008

    If they’re looking purely at economics, then kids definitely have a negative impact! They cost a heck of a lot of money which is never reimbursed(!). People are typically financially better off without children than they would be with them, but that’s far from being the only issue at large here.

  2. #2 Paradigm
    February 28, 2008

    I’m not sure meaning and love should be included in the concept of happiness. Neither has to feel good, which I think happiness, per definition, must.

    Maybe the conclusion is that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

  3. #3 Jillian
    February 28, 2008

    I have been trying to decide whether or not to have kids and I took Daniel Gilbert’s comments into consideration when I read his book. I’ve also read (don’t remember where, sorry!) that couples have a better chance of sticking together when there are no children in the picture. People I work with who have kids generally complain about how much trouble they are–though of course I assume they love them anyway. My husband and I both came from close-knit, relatively happy families and our siblings and parents are a wonderful part of our lives as adults, which I think is something to consider. Nevertheless, I don’t really like to be around kids in general. It’s a tough decision–If happiness is the meaning of life, then it seems childnren aren’t the way to go. If passing on DNA is the meaning of life–I think my species is doing plenty of that already.

  4. #4 SEK
    February 28, 2008

    And I’d like a puppy that tasted like chocolate.

    You want to eat puppies? You’re pro-puppy consumption? You can throw the idea of second career in politics away now.

  5. #5 Scott Belyea
    February 28, 2008

    I have been trying to decide whether or not to have kids … I don’t really like to be around kids in general.

    It seems to me that the obvious conclusion is that if you have to analyze things in the same sort of way one might try to decide whether to buy a bigger house or a more expensive car, then avoid children.

    That’s not intended to be any sort of insult, but that’s the way your append struck me.

  6. #6 elliott
    February 28, 2008


    First of all, what is the contradiction in the Pew responses? Are they really mutually exclusive? The classic economic model of a human being is inappropriate when studying decisions like marriage and childbirth, which are not economic decisions confronted objectively and rationally. It makes perfect sense that romantic relationships appeal to our individual selves, because the emotions involved lead eventually, to the creation of more people. Personal fulfillment through marriage and care for offspring are so intertwined that the author’s deduction is pretty clumsy.

    Humans are replicating organisms. That is an inescapable fact, and one that cannot be overruled by artificial calculations of value. Science would do better (and I guess may already have since I dont read enough) to study the forces that lead to the choices studied by economists. To use those only those choices themselves as data is like following behind an animal but only looking at its tracks.

  7. #7 elliott
    February 28, 2008

    Great blog by the way. Always appreciate your work.

  8. #8 Anna K
    February 28, 2008

    I agree about measuring meaning and worth versus measuring pleasure. As someone who has committed social science research, it’s all about how you define (and control for) the concept you want to measure.

    Childcare moment by moment does not often make me feel happy (particularly when my teenage daughter pulls a diva fit), but childrearing seems eminently worth it. I have had moments of enormous gratification spending time with my children, just as I have had moments when I thought about FedExing them to their grandmother.

    If Bailey says that the reason people report happiness from having children is because they are essentially lying due to social pressure, then he has not listened to enough groups of mothers (or perhaps mothers censor themselves around ‘outsider’ researchers). The mothers I know, complain freely about childcare. However, they have also spoken of their pride and delight in their children. I don’t think there is a contradiction there, and I like your comparison to marathon running. The aches and pains and travails of training do not cancel out the joy of crossing the finish line. I rather think, in fact, that the sacrifices give greater value to the result.

    In this case I believe the better question is not so much, Does an activity make me happy, as, Does an activity seem to me to be worthwhile?

    Pleasure vs. worth (or meaning, if you like) gets at the heart of this issue. The sense of deep gratification and satisfaction one gets from accomplishing something for which one sacrifices immediate pleasures probably adds up longterm to a greater source and depth of happiness, or perhaps something more precious than happiness. All depending, of course, on how one defines ‘happiness.’

  9. #9 jope
    February 28, 2008

    (Link to the original article…?)

    I was very reluctant to become a parent, made a deliberate decision to go through with it (after a LOT of discussion), and even now refuse to make a simplistic better/worse assessment about its impact on my mental health. These results bother me in the sense that they are an average among a very heterogeneous set of experiences. There is a lot of novelty and personal satisfaction to be had from parenting, and this generally translates to happiness. There is also a lot of drudgery and loss of freedom to be had in parenting, and this detracts from happiness. But how much of a contribution is made by each side of the equation depends enormously on the parents as individuals, the kids as individuals, and the relationship dynamics among the parents and kids. And that dynamic in turn depends a great deal on how parents (and kids, but we’re talking about parents here) consciously choose to engage in those relationships. If the study failed to take into account differences among those post-natal choices, it loses much of its relevance.

    And yeah, definition and measurement of happiness is itself a slippery science.

  10. #10 Wraith
    February 28, 2008

    While measuring happiness accurately is difficult, relying on people to honestly assess for themselves whether children make them happy is very dangerous. Perhaps runners really aren’t as happy as is assumed.

    It seems that the only reason to assume that kids make people happy is an attachment to the idea that raising kids is noble and that strong love should be rewarded with happiness, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that.

  11. #11 David Dobbs
    February 28, 2008

    If the happiness measures in use here rate watching TV over raising kids, I’m not sure I want any part of that sort of happiness.

  12. #12 MN Dad
    February 28, 2008

    Jonah, do you have a link to the original article?

    I share your skepticism of Bailey’s conclusions. I am a father of three and the kids are tied with my wife as sources of happiness in my life.

    I would like to see three possible explanatory variables:
    1. Crosstabs on the responders by divorce vs. marriage status
    2. Longevity and overall health of parents vs. childless people
    3. Impact of government social safety nets and rising financial wealth on attitudes toward parenting.

    (3) was spurred by Ian’s comment (Comment 1, I think), who claimed childless people are better off financially. I think he’s engaging in static thinking, rather than dynamic life-cycle thinking. In the pre-Social Security days, having kids meant you had someone to generate income to support you in your later years. Indeed, more kids was better, particularly with higher child mortality (that could be variable #4). Now SS and rising prosperity and portable financial wealth come along, and the need for several kids wanes dramatically. However, as I’ve seen my grandparents age and enter nursing homes, I see the tremendous value of having a loving, engaged advocate for their care — something a child is best suited to do. Can’t get that kind of interaction and advocacy without descendants — all your childless friends are in the nursing home, too.

  13. #13 B
    February 28, 2008

    Uh…if you conduct a survey and then disregard a portion of the results, saying “those surveyed merely responded in this fashion because they felt they were expected to respond thusly,” it seems to me you’ve missed the point of a survey in the first place.

    I mean, I’m just sayin’. It’s like surveying Americans who have driver’s licenses and those who don’t on how driving relates to happiness, and when those who don’t have licenses say they’re OK with not driving, responding “They’re only saying that because they aren’t honest or introspective enough to realize that not having a driver’s license makes them feel like inadequate, worthless idiots!”

  14. #14 Andrea Grant
    February 29, 2008

    I’d also agree the metric of happiness seems a bit reductionist, or just plain bizarre. I guess, if pressed, I’d agree eating makes me “happy” if happiness means I’ve fended off death by starvation. I also agree that it’s hard to compare transient pleasures and indulgences which, if I didn’t really stop and think, I might say make me happy with longer term satistfaction. Those short term things can be deceptive–ask an addict in the middle of a binge if their substance of choice makes them happy. They will absolutely tell you yes. Ask them the same question the next morning, or 5 years into an abstinence program.

  15. #15 Anya
    February 29, 2008

    There’s an old adage that “you’re never happier than your unhappiest child.” The more people whose happiness are important to you, for whom you have deep and abiding love, the more opportunity for empathetic unhappiness. My children have had to remind me at times that they do not exist to make me happy, or, as they put it: “Get a life, Mom!”

  16. #16 Anya
    February 29, 2008

    One more thought:

    “For love’s gift is shy, it never tells its name, it flits
    across the shade, spreading a shiver of joy along the dust.
    Overtake it or miss it for ever. But a gift that can be
    grasped is merely a frail flower, or a lamp with flame that will flicker.” -Sir Rabindranath Tagore

    The gift your children give you is of the kind that cannot be grasped.

  17. #17 John Farrell
    February 29, 2008

    Well written, Jonah.

  18. #18 Sky High
    February 29, 2008

    Wow, this is such a great blog. You’re a really special person.

  19. #19 jb
    March 1, 2008

    Someone who didn’t stumble on happiness but has been studying it for awhile is Martin Seligman,PhD at the Unversity of Pennsylvania. See his website and/or read his book “Authentic Happiness” which compiles the results of many studies of what makes us happy and suggests ways of getting to a happier state of mind. Dr. S is also the originator of a new field, Positive Psychology, a better way to mental health. There is a chapter on raising children.

  20. #20 Laura
    March 2, 2008

    It strikes me that this is psychological research that people, especially people with children, simply don’t want to hear. I don’t think I’ve ever heard people seriously question the finding that married people are happier than non-married, and yet divorce is commonplace.
    Long term goals that are committed to and followed through on add to happiness, and raising a child is definitely a long term goal. Of course, those who really do find raising kids a major contributer to their happiness have to face the empty nest at some point. Women in particular, probably because they have always been the most involved in child raising, get hit pretty hard when the kids are really gone. The men I’ve spoken to have been glad to see the kid go more often than not .
    I and a number of my friends, both married and not, have chosen to be childless. From where I stand parenthood seems an incredible burden people put on themselves, and one I’ve never wanted to put on myself.
    To the parents out there: can you say you are happier now than you were in the few years before the birth of your first child?

  21. #21 jb
    March 3, 2008

    Responding to Laura, most of my friends were parenting when the idea of zero popultation growth was around; my husband and I decided there were enough people in the world so we passed on kids and pursued our respective careers. When my biology clock started ticking, we had a happy ‘accident’ and became parents. Parenting at that age was the hardest thing I have ever done; there were lots of happy moments but being on call for another human being most of 24/7 was daunting. Even now I take my hat off to other parents and wonder how they manage to raise more than one or a child who has problems. But looking back over what I have done with my life, raising a child was the most worthwhile of all my endeavors and my child although not nearby now is a constant source of delight. And I am particularly glad that early on, I stopped working full time and have since worked part time.

  22. #22 lieben
    March 3, 2009

    Interessante Informationen.

  23. #23 mmaloof
    March 16, 2009

    There are a few things lacking from this argument.
    The question is not, “Will having children make me happy.” That is irrelevant. Happiness and sadness are mutually exclusive parts of being human and should be accepted as so. If we based all of our decisions on simply what would make us happy (pleasure?), we would be obese drug & sex addicts that sleep too much and spend all waking hours in search of entertainment.

    This issue is deeper than the concept of happiness. Human beings seem to have an entitlement over their procreation, as though everyone should have children because as organisms, that is a fundamental part of survival of the species. But we are not simply animals. We have a distinct intellectual and emotional responsibility to do what is best for our species not because we should, but because we can. So in this sense, I think the question is not, “Will children make me happy,” but more so, “would I make a good parent?”

    On the topic of economics and children being part of why kids make people unhappy, consider the following argument. When you apply economics to human physiologic behaviors, such as eating and procreation, you enter dangerous territory. Economically speaking, it is much cheaper to grow high-starch corn and shovel it into the mouths of cows to fatten them up so we have plenty of beef. But, when humans consume food that economically rich but nutritionally poor we are left with deleterious consequences (e.g. 50% of our population dies from heart disease, a preventable illness in most cases). We need to think more about quality over quantity as a population. People need to be more responsible about their fertility and contraception should be free for every single individual. If you must think about thinks in terms of economics, children should not be thought of as a burden but as an investment in the future. If you do not have the money to start a business or the desire to, why on earth would someone start a family unless they were willing to treat it as a precious investment in their own lives and for the lives of others. Having children should be considered an incredibly honorable responsibility that only those who are prepared should endeavor. Yet, we treat it as something in terms of making us happier or more miserable.

    When two people decide to expand their family, they should think of it as work, and they should care about what they produce. Their children should be a reflection of their love and devotion to each other and to their progeny. There will always be difficulties in the process, but such is the nature of existence.

  24. #24 Pipe fittings
    June 15, 2009

    I agree about measuring meaning and worth versus measuring pleasure.

  25. Why didn’t anyone tell me this 6 years ago!! Seriously though I agree with others who are questioning the meaningfulness here of ‘pleasure’ as the criteria.

    x jo

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