“Do Kids Make You Happier?”

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Last Wednesday NBC’s Today Show reported that adults without children are 7% happier than those with children. Having just written on Demographic Winter, I was struck by seeing this rather opposing perspective the next day. You can see it for yourself here. The central finding:

“Marital satisfaction decreases after the birth of the first kid, and doesn’t go up until after the last kid leaves home.”

The TV report gives no operational definition for “happiness” (but what would you expect?). So I did hours of research (actually, I googled “Do Kids Make You Happy?”) and found a Newsweek article written by one of the Today Show interviewees, Lorraine Ali. It includes this:

“Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University’s Robin Simon, a sociology professor who’s conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children.”

Reasons for this include sleepless nights, economic pressures, career disruptions, changes in romantic relationships, lack of social support for many parenting needs, and more. It’s a new trend, according to the Today Show.

And it does not address the fulfillment, love, or joy parenting brings, for as the interviewer said, “how can you quantify that?”

I fly frequently, usually alone, but sometimes with my family. Years ago when the kids were small, I was bothered by my own emotional reaction to having the family with me on a flight. “It’s so much harder, less relaxed and peaceful when they’re along,” I would think; and then I would feel guilty for thinking it. Then I realized that it was just true; no need to feel guilty for thinking it. It really is easier to travel alone than with my wife and kids. But there’s an emotional richness that comes with being together, that cannot be matched in any way by cocooning in my usual exit-row window seat.

Easier, or emotionally richer–which do you choose? That, I think, is a microcosm of the situation this study addressed. Of course life would be easier and I could be “happier” without kids, if “happier” meant doing the things I want to do, not having heartaches or fears about people I love, not being bothered or disturbed by others’ needs or agendas.

“But I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.” I almost wrote that as if it were true. Actually, there have been moments … but they have been few and they have been brief.

Here’s the question: Is happiness the point? What about fruitfulness? What about love? What about giving? What about spiritual and character growth? What about the future?

Final note about the TV interview: there are some good thoughts in there on what children need, and what contributes to satisfaction in marriage, with or without children. If you watch it, don’t fail to grab what’s good there.

3 Responses

  1. Wickle says:

    Speaking as the father of four, I would put forward that children have made life so much more than I ever imagined it would be. I say this not only because my daughter is the most wonderful baby ever (don’t tell my sons I said that), but there have been so many things about being a father, it’s made my life much more fulfilling and worthwhile.

    Do I have less time for reading and writing? Yes. Are we almost always on the edge of being financially broken? Yes. Is there a wild amount of stress, lost sleep, and lost alone time (ahem …) with my wife? Of course there is.

    But there’s also the thrill of being a parent, of helping these kids grow into what they’ll be. There’s the knowledge that I was chosen to take care of these wonderful kids.

    Yes, kids make my happier. I don’t care what Newsweek has to say about it.

  2. This fetish our modern “progressive” (= unborn child-murdering, euthanizing, homosexual imposition, etc.) society has with measuring things (hence assuming they’re important if measurable) would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. I mean, really, you’d think critical thinkers would notice the foolishness of a statement like “adults without children are 7% happier than those with children.” Well, please show me a “happiness” or a collection of “happinesses” and I’ll be glad to measure it/then and provide you tons of statistics. It’s just as lame-brained as Dawkins’ concept of “meme”: show me a meme, Mr. Dawkins, and I’ll be glad to provide you empirical data on it. Where’s a real scientist when you need one? Show me empirically-verifiable evidence of the existence of this thing Newsweek calls “happiness,” and I’ll keep my mouth shut. Counting the number of people who share “feelings” about children is not measuring happiness, it’s counting the number of people who share “feelings.” Boy, now that’s a useful tautology… NOT!

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Yes, that 7% figure deserved more scrutiny than I gave it. What’s the operational definition? How do you validate it as really measuring “happiness”? How do you quantify it?

    I assume, based on past experience, that in the published articles on these studies they answer these questions, and they include proper disclaimers about the limitations of the study, how it should and should not be generalized, and so on. Most published psych research displays that level of responsibility. Journalists don’t always pass that information along, unfortunately.

    For a short while my daughter was in a beginning band under a teacher who (as most band teachers do) assigned chairs according to test scores. Lisa came home one day and said she was in second chair after the last playing test. She scored 97.34 on her test, and the first chair player scored 97.89. I kid you not. They had been playing trombone for all of three or four months, and the teacher thought he could grade them meaningfully on a scale that went to four significant digits, and that he could discriminate one 7th grader’s skills as being half a percent better than another 7th grader’s skills.

    (I don’t actually remember their exact scores, but they were in that neighborhood.)

    Sometimes you have to question just what it is that people are measuring.