Why children don’t make us happy (on average)

Photo by Flickr user carf. Click for sourceThe Psychologist has a counter-intuitive article on research that indicates, contrary to popular belief, that having children tends not to make people happier. In fact, parents reliably report that they feel less happy than in their child free days, and less happy when compared to childless couples.

Over the past few decades, social scientists like me have found consistent evidence that there is an almost zero association between having children and happiness. My analysis in the Journal of Socio-economics (Powdthavee, 2008) is a recent British example of parents and non-parents reporting the same levels of life satisfaction, on average.

But the warnings for prospective parents are even more stark than ‘it’s not going to make you happier’. Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

It’s an interesting article as it tackles not only why having children tends not to make us happier, but also why we think it does in cultures across the world.

Link to ‘Think having children will make you happy?’.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor for The Psychologist.

6 Comments

  1. smallerdemon
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    My wife and I decided to have a child about… 15 years into our relationship (ten years into our marriage). Five of those ten years were me thinking about if I was ok with having children or not.
    Does it “make” you happy? No. Duh. It is work, work, and more work. But, not everything fulfilling makes you happy, after all. If it did, no one would go to college or get a job either. :)
    I do feel for kids that are the result of people believing this mistaken idea, though. In particular, any couple that already has issues between them with communication, understanding each other, and more practically speaking, household chore and task management, will not in any way have their lives magically changed into something better by having a child. If anything, it will quickly go the other direction. My guess about these types of beliefs are that they get this idea in their head that if they have a child then they will have a common point of interest to rally upon and thus be forced into a situation of cooperation and compromise. That, of course, doesn’t happen. If anything, tempers escalate and already held beliefs and habits just get more ingrained. It is absolutely crazy that anyone does this, but it is incredibly common.
    I do wonder, though, if there’s a more complex feeling or set of feelings involved with having children that isn’t really easily delineated by “happiness” as the defining point?

  2. Posted March 26, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the joys that having children bring have more to do with meaning than with the kind of daily satisfaction that a questionnaire is designed to inquire about. What measure is there for the knowledge that you aren’t the most important person in the world? That you would try to stop a car with your body for your child? That the world doesn’t end with you?

  3. Posted March 26, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    I think that smallerdemon makes a good point about why we need to equate fulfillment with happiness. It does not always have to be short-term fulfillment that defines our happiness or satisfaction.
    As for the question of why we would potentially delude ourselves into feeling happiness. Well, if we didn’t, we would certainly have a population sustainability problem, no? (And yes, having said that,it would certainly seem that Western Europe and Japan have figured out the game and ceased believing in the delusion/matrix)

  4. Posted March 27, 2009 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    The case, if you will, “against happiness” in favor of fulfillment is made by Charles Murray in a recent lecture:
    http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.29531/pub_detail.asp
    He suggests that the data is trending his way. Who is right? This matter needs another look.
    Three things I don’t see taken into account are (1) happiness across the lifespan, (2) happiness as a function of ideology (are Europeans childlessly happy because they believe that is the way to happiness?), and, importantly, (3) intergenerational changes in happiness related to fads in parenting. I find it very hard to believe that parenting wasn’t more fulfilling when it didn’t involve making your life and pocketbook revolve around the child’s every whim.

  5. YadaYada
    Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    It’s a wonder, then, why people would want to have more than one child! I guess happiness can’t be a major consideration in having children. Otherwise, experienced people would not just keep making themselves even more unhappy with more children? I suppose, if I wanted to look for a logical alternative, would people have children out of a sense of duty to their family or tribe? Or for economic purposes? But then again, why do other animals have young? Are we *that* different?

  6. Posted April 5, 2009 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Yes I think Chris brings up a good point that these numbers may be different for “happiness across lifespan”. I can’t imagine that a childless 80 year old living in a retirement home is happier than that same 80 year old with loving children and grandchildren. And really that’s a significant phase of life.
    I also agree that happiness isn’t necessarily fulfillment, and I would gladly trade a bit of the former if it meant a lot more of the latter. Which is kind of how I see parenting. Since becoming a parent I’ve certainly had less “fun” than I used to, but its also resolved a lot of existential turmoil I once had (since a part of me lives on when I die in a very real way) and I view myself and my life very differently. I’m less self-centered, less ambitious (in a good way), more balanced, and feel more at peace with myself and the world.
    I don’t know if you’d describe that as happiness exactly. But I certainly prefer it to the short term fun of my bachelor days.


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