The Frontal Cortex

Kids and Happiness

Some new evidence suggesting that children aren’t such bundles of joy:

Sociologists are discovering that children may not make parents happier and that childless adults, contrary to popular stereotypes, may often be more contented than people with kids.

Parents “definitely experienced more depression,” says Robin Simon, a sociologist at Florida State University who has studied data on parenting.

“Part of our cultural beliefs is that we derive all this joy from kids,” says Simon. “It’s really hard for people who don’t feel this to admit it.” Social pressures to view only the positive aspects of child rearing only make the problem worse, she says. “They’re afraid to admit it because it runs so counter to our cultural beliefs that children make you happy.”

This data jives with the self-reports of parents. As Daniel Gilbert notes, “The only known symptom of the empty-nest syndrome is increased smiling. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” According to the data, looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.

And yet, these subjective self-reports also miss something important, I think. 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 “unconditional love”. Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable, and teenagers can be such a pain in the ass, but having kids can also be a profound source of meaning for people. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that rash and how the race seems like it’s taking forever. But when the running is over they are always incredibly proud of their accomplishment. Having kids, then, is like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) The larger point, though, is that just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that we should always privilege the quantifiable (pleasure) over the intangible (meaning). Real life is complex stuff.


  1. #1 April
    July 8, 2008

    The happiness that some people get from raising children may not be measurable, but admitting that children do not = happiness, ceteris paribus, is affirming for those of us who choose not to have children.

    There are plenty of ways to have a meaningful life and it’s ridiculous for parents to tell us that we’re “missing out” on something fantastic if we choose not to have kids… Also, I’ve seen some people who seemed pretty miserable with their choice to have kids. That’s not a mistake I am willing to make.

    “looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor”
    Here’s to the truth!!

  2. #2 CRM-114
    July 8, 2008

    Given that the world population is now at 6.5 billion and our resources are finite, what’s wrong with questioning the assumption that everybody should get married and have children?

    If people have children just to satisfy their biological or emotional urges, then we should consider taxing them for the burden they put on our resources, with the tax bite stiff enough to discourage the bulk of their ilk.

    (No, I have no kids. None to speak of, and none to keep quiet about.)

  3. #3 Crusty Dem
    July 8, 2008

    I have two wonderful kids, but it’s certainly stressful, and I don’t recommend it for everybody (or even most). I love them and they make me happy and miserable, sometimes at the same time. The hyper-prevalent “you’ll never be happy without kids” thing is horribly stupid and ill-advised. And as much as I love them and definitely would do it again, I don’t doubt that my self-reporting of happiness level would go up when they fly off to college, just having more time and less stress is a pretty big lifestyle improvement. I guess I’m saying I completely agree with the studies, not very interesting I guess.

  4. #4 Helena
    July 9, 2008

    How do people who chose not to have kids measure what they are “missing out”? Likewise how can parents measure how fulfilling their life would be if they were childless? There are things you simply can’t quantify, I think, one of them being all those “what if”s. I do believe, however, that there is a time and age for everything, like growing up, fathering an article or a book, a child or a pet, a melody or an idea. We are talking four hands here, a couple as the “author”, putting the theory into practice, so syncronizing your right time and age with someone else’s may be tricky but it can be done. Results speak for themselves.

  5. #5 Lee Pirozzi
    July 9, 2008

    I was planning to comment on this last night after I climbed
    down from the magnolia tree where I was building a treehouse, but I was too tired to give it my all. Perhaps the depression statistic from parents stems from the added
    stress and responsibility for more lives and the fear for the futures of the children. The children in their purest form of play enlighten adults if we listen and the lessons and insight they still primally have startles me and prompts me to continually question everything with them. There is no perfect way to approach life and experience all it offers, including parenthood.

  6. #6 Anna K.
    July 9, 2008

    CRM-114, I am not sure what other reasons there are for having children besides satisfying emotional or biological urges. I certainly didn’t have my children for the good of the state. 😉

    But speaking of the state, even though children are a burden on resources, we could also argue that so are the childless elderly . . . whose benefits are paid for by the taxes of other people’s grown children in the workforce, and who are cared for by other people’s grown children in the workforce.

    I believe Goethe said that the debt married people owed one another is incalculable; and the same I think can be said of the debts that generations owe one another.

  7. #7 Anna K.
    July 9, 2008

    Jonah, I just checked out the link you provided to the NPR report. They make another excellent point, which is that in American society parents get very little social support when it comes to the everyday work of childrearing, compared to other cultures: few of us have extended family around to share the childcare as in more traditional cultures; nor do we have the socialized supports of other Western countries.

    I think American parents, comparatively, bear more of the economic and work-related burdens when it comes to childrearing, than parents in other societies. It would be interesting to see some cross-cultural studies on this.

  8. #8 c
    July 9, 2008

    I think there are some great points here. I believe that a lot of parents do enjoy it over the long haul, and find that it’s worth it. I also think that some do not, but very few publicly admit that. There’s a HUGE amount of social pressure for people who already are parents to claim that it’s great, that they’re not sorry they did it, they’d do it all over again, etc. If for nothing else than to not make the kids feel bad.

    If you have kids and wish you didn’t, people think something must obviously be wrong with you. So virtually every parent claims to love it — it’s the best thing that ever happened to them! And I’m sure that there are countless parents who do genuinely feel that way. But I’ve spoken to several parents who’ve privately told me that, even though their kids grew into wonderful adults, they don’t think it made their life better on the whole.

    Given this mixed bag of feelings, why would someone whose life is already very happy choose to have children? You know that most likely the first few years will be stressful and potentially depressing. You know that it’s a financial drain and in some ways likely to be a drain on society. You *might* come out happier in the end, or you might not. In some cases, you might come out less happy. This doesn’t feel like a good gamble to me, but obviously lots of people feel otherwise.

    One really tough thing about this is that there’s no truly effective way to give parenting a test drive. Babysitting won’t cut it. And once you’ve committed, you’re stuck for life. And if you take the plunge, you have overwhelming pressure to claim you’re happy you did so, and likely to even convince yourself of it..

  9. #9 Shawn
    July 9, 2008

    My wife and I are parents of three, two biological and one adopted, all under 5 years old at present.

    I think Jonah is on the right track with the marathoner metaphor. Richard Layard’s book “Happiness” discusses that idea, too: we “miswant” (want things that don’t make us happy when we get them) and “misremember” events (this is generally positive, as we forget the bad parts and remember the good parts of an event). Parenting is like that.

    I agree with Anna K. that American pop culture and political-economic incentives do not support parenting as much as other countries. However, I look at the way government support has poisoned the family unit in Western Europe and doubt that I want to follow that example. The unintended consequences of the Industrial Revolution, improved longevity and the social safety net are that children are no longer the “retirement nest eggs” they were in previous generations. Without the physical rewards of being supported in our old age by our kids, we are “left with” the psychological and emotional rewards, which can be much more fleeting. Still, as my kids age, I expect to feel a sense of generational continuity for having raised moral, ethical and compassionate people… at least I hope we succeed in that!

  10. #10 Shawn
    July 9, 2008

    Not that this blog needs more literary references, but Prof. Luo’s suggestion that terrorism is caused by lack of resources is interesting, but hardly new.

    Read Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (much deeper than the so-so movie), in which he suggests all wars are caused by population pressure.

    Another thought: Gibbon concluded the same thing in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

  11. #11 rja
    July 10, 2008

    “I believe that a lot of parents do enjoy it over the long haul, and find that it’s worth it.”

    The reason behind this could be avoidance of cognitive dissonance, however, a wellknown factor in human psychology. To avoid anxiety we tell ourselves that what we have is better than what we have not, and that our choices were right even though they were not. Add to this the social stigma of saying that one is NOT happy with having one’s child.

  12. #12 James O'Hearn
    July 10, 2008

    “Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable…”

    Really? I must be abnormal then, because my kids and I have a ball changing diapers.

    Can others be happy changing diapers? I guess it depends. Perhaps if you saw it as a chore, as a necessary activity that you have to engage in which distracts you from your real life, that is, the things you would rather be doing but can not because the kids keep distracting you, then no. But then again, if you really did feel that way, then I would venture to say that you aren’t a parent at all, but a co-habitant, living in the same space as other human beings, but otherwise unconnected to them as much as is possible.

    You can not quantify happiness, you can only qualify it. As with anything that lay within the experiential realm, what “it” is can only be known by individuals engaged in the experience, a knowledge that, while we do try to communicate to others, more often than not is almost entirely visceral and ineffable.

    Which is why when it comes to communication between dedicated parents and dedicated non-parents, “never-the-twain-shall-meet” is perhaps the only operative phrase.

  13. #13 Chris
    July 10, 2008

    I am a parent of two, and speaking only for myself, I have experienced no greater joy than the joy that comes with loving my kids.

    Love is the central component here that, oddly, has been left out of many of the comments.

    I have no problem with people who choose not to have kids, just as I have no problem with people who choose not to get married, to convert to a different religion, etc.

    But what I find strange is the vague sense of condescension that comes from those who are childless to those who have children. Perhaps the childless feel that same condescension from parents.

    Parents choose to be parents for a variety of reasons. My wife and I really, really wanted to have kids, so we did, and we want more. We love raising our family, however stressful it can be at times.

    But the problems that come with raising children are not really very different in kind from the problems that come in any relationship where you love someone. (It’s sometimes similar to the love that you might have for an aging parent or grandparent, whom you care for even though doing so costs you trips to Europe, or watching a movie on a Sunday night, or sleeping in late.) The difference is that the love you have for your children never goes away — there is nothing fleeting about it. It only grows. It’s beautiful, there’s no other word to describe it.

    I don’t mean to persuade the childless to go have kids; far from it, why would I want people who don’t want kids raising them?

    Rather, I mean to suggest that those who are childless understand that parents enjoy being parents not because of some post-hoc rationalization that there were only good times. Parents enjoy being parents because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the love that a parent has for his child. It is unquantifiable and irreplaceable, and I personally wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

  14. #14 Andy
    July 10, 2008

    My sons smile, twinkling eyes, and excitement every morning and when I get home from work makes my every day. It may seem trite to jaded adults, but this simple expression of unconditional love makes “everything” bearable. Yes, the details of children cause much unhappiness, stress, financial problems etc…. but so does everything else in life. Perhaps this is an example of cognitive dissonance. Call it what you want but I personally find the reward far exceeds the effort.

    Life is not about “you”. It is about what “you” can give to others. Not everyone needs children to learn this important life trait, but it has certainly helped open my eyes…

  15. #15 Adam
    July 10, 2008

    Life isn’t the same for everybody.

    A person should try to know who they are first. Then try to follow the path that works for you. This may not be one of the paths talked about in this article. Of course in practice it does not work this way. It is not predictable.

    There are many ways to live. Nobody should feel like they have to have children to live a full life.

  16. #16 Chris
    July 10, 2008

    Adam – who said that people should have children in order to live a full life?

  17. #17 jonathon
    July 10, 2008

    Wouldn’t folks out there agree that for most of us we are far happier since our children were born then prior too while at the same time recognizing that parenting brings with it added anxieties (child safety, proper development, etc..) and responsibilities.

    These do not make me less happy unless the metrics for real happiness are based purely on selfish needs.


  18. #18 Adam
    July 10, 2008

    Chris, not sure at this point. I should have put a bit more time into my comment. Admittedly the post hit a nerve with me. So, after rereading the original post and the comments here is what I have to say.

    No “study” can quantify the happiness of an individual or group. People should look to themselves for these answers.

  19. #19 MikeS
    July 10, 2008

    I call BS on all these “happiness” surveys because they are static. As you say, it’s like surveying someone in the middle of a marathon. Here’s just one factor to consider:

    Suicide rates in this country peak for people in their 70’s and 80’s. The primary reason? Loneliness. People without children find themselves old and alone. People with children always have someone in their lives. For my parents, my wife’s parents and many others, their grown-up children are their best friends.

    I remain convinced that if you took the integral of happiness over someone’s life, people with kids would be happier than those without.

  20. #20 Linda
    July 10, 2008

    “People with children always have someone in their lives.”

    But there’s no guarantee of that. Some children move far from home, and many of them get busy with their own families. Check nursing homes to see how many of those folks are lonely despite having children.

    As to the research itself, I’d like to see more of it before commenting on it.

  21. #21 muhr
    July 11, 2008

    “People without children find themselves old and alone.”

    I’m likely even less able to properly contribute to this discussion than most, but as someone with schizoid personality disorder, your above quote sounds like heaven.

  22. #22 Stef
    July 14, 2008

    MikeS — isn’t conceivably a little selfish to insinuate that a primary reason for having children is to prevent your own loneliness in old age? Or to satisfy an emotional need of your own? Shouldn’t having children be more about the gifts you have to offer another person, when you decide to create that life?

    I believe the comment earlier that suggested ‘cognitive dissonance’ is the reason people with children report the experience as positive is correct. Furthermore, I admire those with children who have the honesty to admit that it isn’t all it’s made out to be.

  23. #23 Bob
    July 14, 2008

    Stef: Do you have kids? If not, then how would you know?

  24. #24 themadlolscientist
    July 14, 2008

    This study seems to support Jesse Bernard’s observation that couples without children reported themselves to be happier on average than those with children, and that married men and single women reported themselves to be the happest. Just shows how much we haven’t gotten the message about over the last 35 years, and how much we haven’t changed as a result.

  25. #25 Chris
    July 14, 2008

    I agree entirely with the observation that each side thinks it’s better (or has it better) than the other. Which is why the assumption that parents can’t *possibly* be happy with kids, coming from the childless, is hilarious. It’s utterly false. Childless folks see all the things they don’t want — the responsibilities, the diapers, the tantrums, the financial concerns — and conclude that it must suck, that parents must suffer from “cognitive dissonance.” Parents see all the things about kids that they treasure — family, love, the joy of watching your kids grow and learn, the pride that comes with watching children accomplish things — and wonder how childless people don’t slit their wrists in loneliness and regret. No one sees it from the other persons’ perspective, and never will. So for crying out loud, stop explaining to the other why they’re more miserable than they think they are!

  26. #26 jb
    July 19, 2008

    About the time I got married zero population growth was a big idea and my husband and I busily pursued our careers and let our friends reproduce. Later as my biological clock started ticking and it had become clear that our marriage could sustain only one hot shot career scientist, parenting become a more interesting prospect, not to ensure lasting happiness particularly, but as an immediate feedback system to let you how you are doing as a wise and comapssionate human being. Whatever spiritual austerieties I had experienced prior to motherhood paled in comparison to being on call for another human being 24/7. And children, second only to spouses, are the best mirrors. No one else will sit still long enough to give you feedback. I am forever indebted to mine and in retrospect wish I had had more.

  27. #27 Paul
    July 17, 2009

    Yep. Kids can make us feel like the happiest people in the world, and they can also drive us completely mad. I think we need to take a look at what the root cause is of all our happiness.

    It does appear that the causes of our happiness and suffering actually come directly from the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in. In this case, our children. Of course, a whole myriad of things affect how we feel. We commonly think that our kids are the actual cause of how we feel. We feel that our feelings of happiness or stress are actually coming from our kids. But, although most of us think this, this is actually mistaken.

    The basic, root cause of all our happiness, comes from our mental intention to wish others to be happy, and try to make others happy. Many people feel that their lives have been transformed when they have children, as all of a sudden, there is a little person that who needs our constant attention, love and care. We all know that, when we have kids, all the stuff we were used to doing, like partying, travelling, meeting friends, and all the other past-times that we actually think our the root causes of our happiness have to take a back seat sometimes (well, most of the time!) Our kids challenge us, and can make things very difficult too, of course. But, the message I want to convey here, is that the actual causes for happiness don’t come soley from these external things. Holidays, partying, travelling, spending money on new shoes, etc, are all contributory causes for temporary happiness – until we get bored of the shoes we bought last month, or we find that the hotel has a building site outside, or we get bored of the plasma tv that we spent £2,000 on, or we get bored of the sexy new partner we chatted up in a bar a while back.

    So, where do our feelings of happiness, sadness, anxiety with our kids, depression come from then? The thing is that, the situations, and the things that happen to piss us off, make us impatient, make us feel elated and wonderful too are all secondary causes, which act as the trigger. We all know that some people are able to cope with so much from their kids. Their kids give them a constant hard time. But, some of these people are able to just take it all in their stride, and are able to keep smiling. Other people find it difficult to smile about anything.

    Everything seems to get on their nerves, and irritate them, and make them unhappy. Why is this? Well, actually, all of these feelings that we have, ranging from the heaviest depression, to the lightest, care-free, happiest times – originate from our within our mind.
    So, what is the basic, root cause of our happiness then?
    Well, It lies in developing states of mind that directly cause it: Developing patience, love, compassion, kindness to others is where it’s at. This is why parents find (for a short time anyway!) that they feel incredibly happy, when caring for this new little person, that has come along. We know that these feelings don’t last though. Why? Because most of us don’t realise the actual causes for happiness come from within.

    Temporary happiness, through having great kids, and all the other things that we do stuff is fine, of course. We all need a holiday! But, we also need to gradually built up this internal cause. Many people find this happening when they have kids. We learn all these things from them.. Patience, love, living in the moment… But, we also need to understand that the happiness that we feel is generated within our own mind. If we understand this, and know the methods to use, then the things that once pissed us off, tested our patience, made us depressed, gradually have less and less of an effect. It does sound crazy, but, it’s possible with a little effort, to become very happy all the time. And we, and more importantly, those close to us – our family, become happier also.

    This following little verse is from Shantideva, the Indian Buddhist master:

    “Where would I find enough leather
    To cover the entire surface of the earth?
    But with leather soles beneath my feet,
    It’s as if the whole world had been covered.
    Likewise, if I retrain this troublesome mind of mine, what would be the need in retraining all else?”

    Sounds corny I know, but that’s where it’s at.
    Having kids is great. If we don’t have them, still fine. But, we need to know that root causes of our happiness. Once we know that, everything else falls into place..
    Cheers all.


  28. #28 Krystal
    August 14, 2011

    I think that if there was no enjoyment derived from having a family, most people would not be doing it. I have never been happier than I am now having my son. Every person is different. Some people want kids some don’t for different reasons, and one should not judge the other.

New comments have been disabled.