The Frontal Cortex

Family Life

Benedict Carey summarizes a new UCLA study that documented the life of middle-class families, videotaping their dinners, conversations and leisure activities:

The U.C.L.A. project was an effort to capture a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household. The investigators have just finished working through the 1,540 hours of videotape, coding and categorizing every hug, every tantrum, every soul-draining search for a missing soccer cleat.

“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.”

So what did they find? The general conclusion is that family life is extremely stressful, a relentless barrage of problems, mishaps and negotiations. One of the graduate students who spent time with the families referred to the experience as “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”*

This shouldn’t be too surprising: there is a large body of evidence suggesting that kids aren’t exactly a bundle of joy. For instance, recent work has shown that parents with more kids are more likely to suffer from depression, probably because each additional kid increases the stress burden. As the Harvard psychologist 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. Most people are happier watching bad TV than spending time with their offspring.

And yet, these subjective self-reports and ethnographic videotapes also miss something important. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis, or document the swing of cortisol levels in saliva, 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 provide a profound source of meaning. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that nipple rash and the endless route. 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, stress) over the intangible (meaning, purpose). Real life is complex stuff.

*According to Carey, the grad student now has two kids.

Comments

  1. #1 Justin Wehr
    May 24, 2010

    Very well said, Jonah. I see parents’ “unhappiness” as a key piece of evidence that happiness (i.e. positive emotions) should not be pursued as a goal (a topic I think about and write about often).

  2. #2 DR
    May 24, 2010

    I’m in sympathy with both Jonah & Justin. We may think of happiness as synonymous with some level of pleasure, but that’s not really what the word connotes. “Hap” just means occurrence, neither positive nor negative, often accidental, transitory, imponderable. Like “lucky” or “tasty”, it has taken on a strictly positive aspect, yet the root meaning remains. It is not uncommon to hear that someone is happy with his job, but doesn’t particularly enjoy it. And lotus eaters take intense pleasure, but remain profoundly unhappy.

    Happiness, pleasure and joy bespeak different concepts. Happiness is circumstantial. An observer can remark that I am happy (for example, in enjoying good health or a stable marriage, etc.). By the observer’s standard, and society’s, he is right. I am happy, fortunate. The observer, however, cannot properly infer that I take pleasure in those things. Pleasure (like pain) is entirely subjective and leaves the observer guessing. Similarly, I can experience and express great joy, yet be most unhappy (think of any blues-man or -woman of the early 20th century).

    I can testify that child-rearing is stressful and joyful, more happy than pleasant. Pleasure is a private and basically selfish sensation. In short, children should experience pleasure and parents joy. And in our pursuit of happiness, well, good luck to us, because that’s pretty much where the word comes from.

  3. #3 Niels
    May 25, 2010

    I always get the feeling when talking to people that have children that they suffer massively from cognitive dissonance with regard to their children. They say they are very happy with being parents but at the same time it doesn’t look that way.

  4. #4 Niels
    May 25, 2010

    You could exchange the Marathon example for the following without being wrong either: Having kids is like riding a bicycle in the rain while complaining about getting wet and being tired. When you finally arrive you can put on some dry clothes and sit in a comfortably heated room.

    Yes, it probably feels like it wasn’t that bad once you are comfortable but that might just be because our memory doesn’t work all that well:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory.html

  5. #5 Jim
    May 25, 2010

    Only an 18 year marathon? Our son is finally an adult at 25 years, and some of the hardest years were at his eighteenth. Plus, it’s a marathon that never really ends.

    The descriptive word you really need is the Yiddish ‘naches’.

  6. #6 Ryan
    May 25, 2010

    I think you’re getting at something like the experience vs. memory conundrum, as explained brilliantly by Dan Kahneman at Ted recently.

    This creates a place for things like “meaning” and other life-altering experiences in a neurobehavioral framework, I think. If we strive to create the best future memories, rather than the best experiences (which aren’t necessarily correlated with the best memories), maybe we’d all try to do more of these “meaningful” things. In the end it’s captured by the banality, you only regret the things you don’t do…

  7. #7 tired parent
    May 25, 2010

    For what it’s worth, I think reframing the experience of parenthood helps in the marathon. Many new parents are pretty shocked to find out how stressful and horrible it is. This might be reduced if everyone wasn’t telling them how magical the experience was going to be. As a parent of one 2 1/2 year old, I can say that I’ve suffered more in the past few years than at any other time in my life — suffered from exhaustion, boredom and occasionally fear.

    It’s kind of like being a drug addict — most of the time your kind of dragging your ass around between fixes, but then you get these great highs when you connect with your child in a wonderful way or see them do something hilarious.

    As the child gets older, it’s gets easier (mostly), but most people foolishly have more children to delay the point where the suffering decreases. I still have no answer why most people have more than 1 children when it’s so obvious to me how much extra suffering you get with more children, with diminishing positive returns.

    I will add one more reason why people like having kids — it somehow does reduce the fear of death. I am an atheist, but for some reason, knowing that my daughter will carry on after I’m gone does give me a sense of immortaility. I know it sound stupid, but it really does feel like that.
    Also, no kidding, the marathon stress of raising children does make the peace of death seem more appealing.

  8. #8 Lee
    May 25, 2010

    I’ve always felt that the crap you put up with while your kids are little was something in the way of a prepayment for the joy you get out of being a grandparent with all of the fun and none of the responsibility, plus having cute little people to bring joy to you in the nursing home. Do most people really have kids because they (wrongly) believe that it is going to be an incredible party, or do they do it because the alternative, at least in the later years, seems extremely bleak? I’ve always been close to my grandparents and their circle of friends and now that they are in their 80s and 90s and many of them are physically limited, it seems that keeping up with the grandchildren is their greatest source of joy. I’m sad for the ones who don’t have families.

  9. #9 gregor
    May 25, 2010

    I think that we think and study and try to plan too much in the American culture. My parents, of modest means in a third world country, had eight kids and I don’t recall that they ever reflected on the larger question of whether or not they were happy, and generally they were quite pleased with the whole experience. The life is not a project, and happiness is not a goal. All just happen.

  10. #10 RC
    May 25, 2010

    I’ve always thought that the choice of having children is neither superior or inferior to not having them. My wife and I sometimes wonder if it was a mistake to pass on kids, but then I think of the examples of disaster among our friends (three separate cases: mental illness, delinquency and jail, unsolved genetic illnesses running up 2 million in medical bills), and realize it’s just a crapshoot and does not guarantee happiness or unhappiness. The grass seems greener when you think about the successes, but it’s not.

  11. #11 Jason
    May 25, 2010

    Loving someone isn’t always easy. I might be “happier” in some superficial sense if I didn’t have kids. But a life whose central pursuit is my own pleasure seems awfully empty to me. You’re happy – so what? I’ll take scattered moments of hard-won joy over a dull hum of “happy” anytime.

  12. #12 Joan
    May 25, 2010

    I agreed with much of #7 (tired parent)’s comments. The first few years are usually really, really, rough — even when you’re lucky and have a healthy, normally-developing kid — and it stinks that people are not more honest about how difficult it is. Then the babies start to become people, and if you’re lucky, they become decent, loving people with whom you have some interests in common (and it goes w/o saying that you love them). My kids are 8 & 10 and just about all of the misery-craziness is behind us (for now — I assume nothing about the future). Yes there are still daily hassles (mostly school-related), but my kids are actually fun to hang out with. My memory is not playing tricks on me when I say that I enjoy as well as adore my family.
    But I also agree with #10, RC, that having a child is the biggest gamble a person will ever take — the pain of something seriously going wrong with one’s child is unimaginable. And I don’t think that the choice of having kids is superior to the choice of not having kids. The two experiences are wildly different and each has the potential to provide great rewards.
    Oh, and to answer #7’s question of why have more than one child: I believe in siblings. I know things don’t always work out between siblings, but in my generation and my parents’ generation, I’ve seen siblings come through as the ultimate support system for each other. I wanted my first child to have family to turn to when her parents weren’t around (or couldn’t help) anymore.

  13. #13 Barak
    May 25, 2010

    I can’t express the depths of emotion I feel about being a parent. The humor I feel in the relentless demands on my time and energy has a quality unlike the humor I feel when watching a comedian, etc.

    I’m not sure if my serotonin levels are higher or not, in general, but I do experience profound joy/pleasure when my child is happy/engaged/etc. Maybe I’m (parents are) addicted to those moments and endure the rest for the sake of them.

    My hunch would be that parents are less happy but have more highs.

  14. #14 AxelDC
    May 25, 2010

    Are the contradictory emotions so unique? We may love something and struggle with it at the same time.

    Parents most likely love their children intensely. They also struggle with them every day, stress about their futures, and worry about their daily struggles. They may even have nightmares about terrible things happening to them.

    Children are not the best at giving positive feedback. They are notoriously egocentric and selfish. They try all sorts of dangerous and stupid things because they lack the wisdom and experience to know better. They are incredibly expensive and only get more so as they age.

    Teenagers have to separate themselves and their identities from their parents in order to become adults, plus they are struggling with hormonal and societal changes. They are moody, ungrateful, rebellious, horny and reckless.

    Even adult children can struggle with their relationship with their parents. Many people rarely talk to their parents and the holiday stresses of forced reunions have become cliche.

    Parents may love their kids, but they may also hate the daily struggles and long-term worries of having to be responsible for them through adulthood. Their big reward comes when the kids leave the house and never return.

  15. #15 Joshua
    May 25, 2010

    Whenever I here about this study I always wonder if they track people latter in life. My personal guess is that seniors without children are much less happy then seniors with children.

  16. #16 James
    May 25, 2010

    The secret to happiness:
    I feel as though many people in the above comments are confused as to whether or not they themselves are happy. Your happiness is under your own control. Even if you are experiencing something painful, you can still be happy. Happiness is generated from within. The environment is ever changing and only you can decide how you want to respond to it. Pleasure, is perceiving an outside influence on your senses as a good thing. Happiness is cultivated by you from inside you. Pleasure is your personal experience of an outside influence from your environment.
    You are a fool if you rely on pleasure to make yourself be happy. Drug addicts use drugs to feel pleasure. They are not happy people. Some people, who are suffering the worst of diseases, can still work up a smile and be happy. My grandfather was telling jokes even when he was in severe pain on his death bed. Parents can be Happy if they choose to be. If they choose to dwell on the stresses of daily life and express sadness, it is by choice. It all boils down to strength of character and the strength to be happy. No one and no thing in this universe can MAKE YOU HAPPY except of course…YOU.
    I also do not like the silly right proclaimed as one of the ultimate freedoms of our country. It is a false right. “The Pursuit of Happiness”. You are Happy or you are Not Happy. Happiness cannot be pursued. Happiness cannot be found. You either learn to cultivate happiness in your heart and share it with others or you don’t. It is so simple yet even after reading this over and over I bet many of you will be blind to the depth of what I am saying. My best wishes go out to all of you.
    P.S. For those of you who are fighting depression, it is going to take a long time for you to practice being happy. Maybe you will one day grow tired enough of being depressed that you will understand what I am saying and learn to cultivate happiness through practicing expressing happiness with others. Try baby-steps like smiling for no reason. Then try smiling and showing it to someone else. Try volunteering in a community activity. Help others who are in need. Make it a way of life.

  17. #17 Philboyd Studge
    May 25, 2010

    Jonah nailed it.

    I thought I knew what love was after a very happy childhood and five years of happy marriage. Then we had our son. The first time he looked up at me and smiled, I knew love and happiness on a magnitude of scale I had never experienced. Our daughter was next. I was prepared for a lessened effect; baby smiles being old hat to us now. If anything it was even more profound. I don’t expect anyone who hasn’t been on the receiving end of that smile to understand. I hadn’t. But I do, and so do many others.

    Cheers,
    Philboyd

  18. #18 Shaun
    May 27, 2010

    This study seems overly concerned with happiness. Life is about many emotions through out our day. Love, anger, fear, boredom. Without different states of being, life would not be worth living. Life is worth living because we feel, and hopefully we are healthy. Now that I have children, I miss some of the experiences that I had as a childless person, but I also enjoy and don’t enjoy the experiences with my children. As 16 mentioned, happiness is yours to find. Children are a new experience, and as they grow they continue to bring you new experiences as they change.

  19. #19 marilove
    June 28, 2010

    P.S. For those of you who are fighting depression, it is going to take a long time for you to practice being happy. Maybe you will one day grow tired enough of being depressed that you will understand what I am saying and learn to cultivate happiness through practicing expressing happiness with others. Try baby-steps like smiling for no reason. Then try smiling and showing it to someone else. Try volunteering in a community activity. Help others who are in need. Make it a way of life.

    WOW. You have absolutely no understanding of how depression works, do you? It’s a chemical imbalance! Please explain to me how a good friend of mine struggles with depression every day of her life, even though she is certainly not unhappy — she has a great family, good friends; she smiles a lot, even when she’s struggling with depression; she volunteers; she is very active (a dancer); and yet, she still struggles with depression every day of her life.

    Please, do some research on depression. Stop making ignorant, uneducated comments that only make you look like an ignoramus, Depression has nothing to do with “happiness” or “smiling randomly” — it’s a chemical imbalance that even people with seemingly great, happy lives sometimes have to struggle with. You are essentially telling them to “suck it up”. Don’t you think they’ve already tried that?

    I suppose you’ll tell me to just “suck it up and pretend everything is okay” when I have a panic attack? I don’t suffer from depression, but I do suffer from anxiety and the occasional panic attack. I know, at least in the abstract, everything is okay, and that I’m not actually going to die; and sometimes there’s often no discernible reason why I am panicking; and yet, I can’t help or stop it. I end up a complete, shaking, panicking mess, certain I’m going to die, and only a small dose of xanax can stop it. That and sitting in my shower, shaking and crying, since my bathroom/shower is my “safe spot”. Then, when it’s passed, I look in the mirror and ask myself: “What was THAT all about?” And I can never seem to get an answer.

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