Children and Happiness

I am the father of a very active and stubborn three year old boy. I am usually exhausted at the end of the day. He makes me smile, but also drives me up the wall sometimes. In other words, I am the typical father of a typical three year old boy.

I was therefore fascinated to read recent research that childless couples are actually "happier" than couples with children:

The cliché refers to newborn children as "bundles of joy," but recent research indicates that bundles of anxiety, or even bundles of depression, might be more accurate.

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.

I think this misses the point and was pleased to see this response to this research by Jonah Lehrer, an editor at Seed:

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.

Read it all here. Parenting is hard stuff. It can be very unpleasant at times. It can be boring at times. But, parenting (and loving) a child does give life meaning--and yes, deep happiness as well.


Robert said…
Thanks for sharing that Chuck. As a person who was very happy without children in my life, I was amazed at how transformed I was with the arrival of a foster child. While we have only had her for months and will be loosing her to her new family, it has certainly changed my outlook in life forever. Blessings to you and your wonderful family.
My mother sent this article my way, with the comment,

"The amazing thing, taking into account the pain of childbirth, the incredible expense AND all of the barf, poop, snot, sleep deprivation, loss of brain cells, & trips to the ER, is that anyone would want to have more than one child! Especially if you count the bickering… and the damage done by "birth order."... Maybe we think we won’t make the same mistakes twice. And we might not, but since every child is different, we make new mistakes that are just as bad. The really amazing thing is that Dad and I wouldn’t change a thing."

BTW, Chuck, love what I see, and have added it to my blogroll. :)
johnieb said…
Parenting is exhausting; that's why we leave it to you youngsters.

Being a grandpa is so wonderful it's hard to express; all the joys and none of the responsibilities is one wqay I put it.

I remember your blog now; I've been here before. (Oops! Wake grandpa up and tell him it's time to go to bed.)

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