THE PARENT TRAP: Do Procreation Drives Trump Happiness? Surveys Reveal Less Happy, More Stressed Parents—but New Science Disagrees

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“A baby is an inestimable blessing and bother.”—Mark Twain, American Humorist, 1825-1910

Got kids?

Survey after survey reveals that people with children are less happy, more stressed, and less sympathetic as marriage partners. So why is it that most of us believe that bearing (or adopting) and raising children is a direct path to happiness and the most natural thing in the world?

In a Pew research study, parents were asked why they had kids. 76% answered it was the  ‘joy of children’ that sealed the deal. Are these folks delusion? There are plenty of reasons to think so.

Our biological imperative to have children hijacks our reality. Our inborn drive to extend our lineage transforms memories of sleepless nights and endless arguments into idyllic remembrances of joy and happiness. It simply must— or we wouldn’t have babies and our species would become extinct.

The Threat of Extinction versus Happier Lives?

In my desire to find a single, simple answer to this puzzle, I discovered that why we do what we do is far more complicated than struggle versus snuggle.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Do you want kids?

A darned important decision! To some, the answer is obvious: “Yes, yes, and yes! Oh yes!!!” This full-throated, automatic response disturbs me. Have you ever asked yourself why?

Avoiding marital strife and divorce doesn’t come naturally any more than marriage and parenting skills do. Just as 93% of Americans think they are above average drivers, most wannabe parents think they’ll somehow become supernaturally exceptional parents.

But where to start? How can we decide what’s right for us as a couple when we don’t understand which criteria to employ to evaluate a life-altering decision like this one? Conscious thought is crucial: it counteracts and questions biologically-and culturally-induced criteria against what we deem most important about life. I don’t have the stones to suggest what you should want, so I’ll scrutinize myself.

I’m too young to have the final answer, so what I’m learning (from you all of you, and from positive psychology) is constantly challenging and expanding my perspectives. I can only offer you a rough draft.

I want meaning. I want happiness. I don’t want a boring life, with a spot of happiness here and there coupled with a general absence of discomfort. I want to overcome significant challenges. I want moment-to-moment, experiential happiness, but I also want to be proud of my eventual legacy, rather than regretting the choices I made along the way.

So now I ask myself a better question:

Will having kids give my life meaning and happiness?

Let’s start with regret, the antitheses of meaning.

By nature, we’re more likely to regret the choices we don’t make rather than those we do. In one study of over 1500 individuals, not one regretted having children, but 10 did regret passing up the opportunity.  But nearly all of the responding housewives expressed some regret for having sacrificed their professional development to stay home with their children.

What can I learn from this? Children are only one component of a meaningful life. The popularly held belief that we’ll (absolutely, without question) regret not having children is false. Other surveys have shown mixed results, with some parents regretting having children, and other couples regretting remaining childless.

But none of these studies tell me if having kids will increase or decrease my sense of well-being and happiness.  Let’s jump to additional surveys.

  • In one study, having children had a mild but statistically significant negative correlation with happiness (r=-.15). This was similar to the negative correlation between being divorced and being happy. Yikes!
  • In another study, those with one or two children were 10% less likely to report high well-being, and those with three children were 20% less likely to report high well-being.
  • In a third study, having children was negatively correlated with marital satisfaction (r=-.1), with each additional child further lowing satisfaction rates.

To quote Betsy Stevenson, a scientist aware of these studies who was hoping to use the data to inform her decision to have kids or not, “Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents.” She checked across different age groups, levels of education, race, religion, marital status, and income. Same result every time.

But she still choose to have children. For better or worse, the biological imperative and cultural norm won.

But this just doesn’t make sense.

Should our biology have to tweak our memories to make us believe we enjoy having children? From an evolutionary perspective, what’s more likely to increase the chances your child, and hence your genes, will survive—a child creating stress and driving two parents apart… or the opposite? Having children shouldn’t decrease marital satisfaction, it should bring two parents closer together. Yes, I’m suggesting that having children  should do all that conventional wisdom believes should happen, but science indicates it doesn’t.

The negative correlation between happiness, marital satisfaction, and well-being is small but statistically significant. And it’s been growing bigger.

Children were once economic assets.

In earlier times, the more children you had, the more acres of land you could plant, plow, & harvest. The more children you had, the more likely there would be someone to take care of you if you manged to live to old age. Not so anymore.

The situation has flipped 180 degrees. Children are now an economic drain.

And they are getting really expensive, very very fast. In just the past ten years the average amount spent per child has risen nearly 40%. It gets worse.

Jennifer Senior of NYMag writes, “All parents spend more time today with their children than they did in 1975, in spite of the great rush of women into the American workforce. Today’s married mothers also have less leisure time (5.4 fewer hours per week); 71 percent say they crave more time for themselves (as do 57 percent of married fathers). Yet 85 percent of all parents still—still!—think they don’t spend enough time with their children.” The full piece, All Joy and No Fun, is a great read.

Bryan Caplan, who wrote Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, recommends we just spend less time on our kids. I think that’s a terrible solution. Yes, twin studies have shown that many traits are influenced much more by our genes than by our parents. But being a parent is about a lot more than influencing our children’s traits. It’s about giving them love, helping them learn varied skills, and instilling our values.  Our children deserve our time.

So then, is this the end of the road? It seems the science all points in one direction – don’t have kids! 

There are three great reasons to believe otherwise.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, a positive psychologist, wanted to further explore the question, “Should we have children if we want meaning and happines?”. In three as-yet unpublished studies, she challenges the status-quo.

Quoting Todd Kashdan’s review of these studies:

  1. “In a survey of 6,906 people in the United States, parents reported greater life satisfaction, meaning and purpose in life, but not happiness.”
  2.  In the second study, ” 329 adults… were paged 5 times per day to gain access into a week of their lives. From moment-to-moment during the course of everyday life, parents reported greater happiness, greater meaning in life, more positive emotions, and fewer depressive symptoms than non-parents.”
  3. In the third study, “they asked 186 parents to reflect on the past 24 hours of their life, breaking down the past day into episodes: what did they do? who were they with? and how much positivity and meaning in life did they experience during these moments? What they found was that on average, compared to moments when their kids were not around, they had more positive emotions and a stronger sense of meaning in life when taking care of their children.”

These studies don’t conflict prior work – they build upon them.

Self-reports of life satisfaction and happiness are extremely useful and accurate as general barometers. We know this because self-reports have been used to accurately predict future income, marital success, and even life-span.

All previous studies indicating that having kids reduces happiness were based on self-reports. And that’s a problem.

Self-reports are impacted by a whole host of cognitive tricks and illusions.

What has your own life satisfaction been like over the past year? Yes, I’m asking you to take a few seconds and think about that question. Go ahead. Do it right now. I’ll wait…

If you’re anything like 99% of other people, two things happened:

  1. Recent events came to mind much easier than older events. As a result, your brain gave more importance to recent events when answering the question.
  2. Highly emotional events came to mind much easier than more tepid events. As a result,y our brain also over-weighted highly emotional events.

Instead of going through each day, one at a time, and subtracting the sum of the positive emotion from the negative emotion, you just averaged your most potent and most recent emotional experiences. That’s simply how we humans gauge things.

As parents, these cognitive tricks work in both ways. They over-estimate the impact our child learning how to walk had on our happiness, making us more likely to suggest to others that they should have children, but they also make us under-estimate the day by day, tiny jolts of happiness we get when our babies smile, making us more likely to believe we’re actually unhappy.

To put flesh on this hypothesis:

  1. When parents are asked if they would recommend having children, they draw from a large bank of experiences with their child across many years. The most emotional events include things like their child learning to talk, while the least emotional include the day-to-day hassles of childcare, causing them to over-report the positive.
  2. When parents are asked about their life satisfaction and happiness, they draw from the past few days. It’s unlikely their child reached a critical milestone in such a short period of time. More likely what’s happened recently is along the  lines of being awakened in the middle of the night, or being upset at having to spend two hours driving junior to his ball game. As a result, we report lower life satisfaction and happiness.
  3. When Sonya Lyubomirsky paged parents five times a day and asked about their life satisfaction and happiness, they drew from the past few minutes and hours. While it’s still quiet likely parents were getting woken up or driving their kids around during that period, by focusing on such a small time period, parents also focused on the tiny but important bumps of happiness they got each time they interacted with their child. As a result, they report higher life satisfaction and happiness. 

Enjoy the present.

A simple way to understand this is to appreciate the common refrain, “Enjoy the journey not the destination.” Parents seem to enjoy each passing moment more than they think, but because they’re so focused on their goals and problems, and because of memory distortion, they forget.

What this journey through dozens of studies and thousands of data-points tells me is that science isn’t ready to answer the question, “Should I have children?” It simply has too little to go on.

I think I’ll just leave the decision up to my future wife…

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobbi Emel

Amit, I love your scholarly thinking-out-loud here! But let me give you some advice: Don’t leave it up to your future wife. YOU need to be as invested or not invested in having children as she is (or isn’t.) End of advice.

I chose not to have children and I think, looking back now from age 48, that I made the right decision for me. The only downside thus far is that I feel a bit left out of my friends’ conversations about their teenage-college age kids.

Great post and interpretations of conflicting information, Amit!

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Amit Amin

Thanks for sharing Bobbi! It’s great that you feel you made the right decision. On the one hand, it’s comforting to find people who’ve chosen the childless route who don’t regret the decision, because that’s how I’m leaning. On the other hand, I am afraid that I will regret that choice, because I just love kids so much :)

You’re absolutely right about needing to be invested – I do appreciate the advice! That comment at the end was more a joke born of frustration. I was hoping for a clear answer one way or another, but totally did not get that. A simple research survey somehow transformed into a ‘meaning of life’ introspection.

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Lori Lynn Smith

:-) as a mother of 4 kids, who are now 24, 21 and 19(yes they are twins) I am much happier NOW that they all have moved out of the house!

as a young mother, with 4 kids under the age of 5 and 3 of them in diapers for 18 months…. I was stressed, I was tired, I was financially ruined…. but was I happy, no…. I was content. I really enjoyed all the baby stuff. The school stuff, not so much. The teenage years not at all. Now they are great again. The stress of it all ruined my marriage to their dad. Kids were awful!

Yet every day I see them now, I am proud of the the young adults they have turned into and all the pain was worth it!

The scariest part is that my current partner and I actually debated whether or not to have kids together…. that is definitely the rose coloured glasses!

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Amit Amin

Wow! Less happy, more happy, not worth it, definitely worth it, one after the other!

You say you are much happier now that they’ve moved out, but also that the pain was worth it. I think that’s a bit of the meaning in life vs. happiness debate that I’m personally struggling with. It would be great if the two always aligned, but sometimes the most meaningful things in life are the most painful, ridiculous, and annoying ;)

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Lori Lynn Smith

:) that is the thing about life though isn’t it!

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Kaylee

Oh jeez… Just as soon as I *think* I’ve decided on the issue, you post this! I appreciate all of the information, but man, talk about confusing. Kids can be preeeeetty annoying, but also pretty adorable. Seems like a you’re damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t kinda thing. Oh well, I’m only 24 – at least I have plenty of time to think about it. :D

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Amit Amin

Sorry! It wasn’t my intention to confuse; although, if I’m encouraging conscious thinking that makes me happy, because it means my scholarly thinking-out-loud has benefited more than just myself.

“Seems like a you’re damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t kinda thing.”
No! I think this means the complete opposite! Those in a poor financial situation get more unhappy from having kids. Those with high levels of optimism are much much less likely to get unhappy from having kids. The research is still new (7 years), but basically one of the leading, long-term predictors of marital health (and satisfaction, and divorce rates, and all of that) is how much more optimistic and positive you act (which is completely within your control) than negative. Those that naturally have the traits and environment that create happiness, are much more likely to derive happiness from having kids, and vice-versa. The best thing you can do if you want to have kids (and derive happiness from them) isn’t read up on parenting books, but become an awesome human being yourself.

“Oh well, I’m only 24 – at least I have plenty of time to think about it.”
Me too, I’m only 22 :)

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Sarah

Having kids is a deeply personal decision for everyone. How smart you are to give it some serious thought before just diving in. It’s interesting in the U.S. how parents who want to adopt are subjected to intense questioning and scrutiny – but then any old clueless youngster can go ahead and have a kid.

I started on the parenting path quite young and during the early years I felt some regrets and envy of my peers who were living such lives of freedom. But I have to say, now that my girls are grown, that there is absolutely nothing in my life more meaningful than my relationship with my daughters. So – as you point out, parenting is always a double-edged sword. If we want the good, we must put up with the pain.

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Amit Amin

I’ve never thought of that, Sarah. But you’re right – it isn’t really consistent that we make adoption so difficult, but clueless youngsters can go ahead and do whatever they want with their child.

“So – as you point out, parenting is always a double-edged sword. If we want the good, we must put up with the pain.”
It’s also possible that parenting is so meaningful, because it is so painful. Our most meaningful accomplishments tend to be the most difficult and challenging, and parenting is certainly both!

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Joel Zaslofsky

Hi Amit,

Yet another outstanding contribution from you! Seriously, the amount of time you put into your articles, the research you do, the pictures and stats you provide…it’s impressive. Most importantly, it’s thought provoking and could lead to people taking action in a way that really helps them.

I already have a son and kid #2 will probably be arriving sometime next year. I’m confident that the human species will live on even if I don’t have a second child but…the assessment my wife and I did for whether to have children and how many was as complicated as you suggest it might be. It was no doubt irrational in ways we can’t sense.

We might be the odd balls but I think we’re the statistically rare parents who have much more happiness with a child than without. He’s just that awesome! And if kid #2 is remotely like kid #1 we’ll be bubbling with happiness! Economic considerations are not part of the equation for us.

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Amit Amin

Thank you Joel!

It could lead to people taking action… if more people read it ;) I need to start putting my marketing hat on, once I’ve got the basics of blogging down pat.

It’s great that you have so much more happiness from him, and good luck with #2! But that also doesn’t make you statistically rare. Without access to the actual data I can’t give you an exact answer, but based on my cursory review, I think you’re about in the 75 to 95th percentile – that is, about 1/4 to 1/10th of parents have much more happiness with children than without. However; these were the people that were also more likely to be happy even without kids.

Are you one of those people, just naturally more happy than others? If so, I’m jealous :)

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Dolly Garland

When I got married – at a much younger than age I ever thought I would – I believed I would eventually have kids. Because that’s how things work. You get married. You have kids. I never thought about it as an option. But we were in no hurry. One day, my husband mentioned that ideally, he doesn’t want to have kids.

My immediate reaction was, “What? How could we not have children?” But that thought stuck in my head. I started thinking about it. Consciously. I actually spent about 2-3 years, properly thinking about it. I observed parents, and children. I thought about what I wanted from my life, versus what I could do if I had children. I thought about how I would want to raise my children and what sacrifices I would have to make to make that happen.

I came to this conclusion. If I have kids, I would want to be a kick-ass mother. I would want to give my kids every opportunity, and every learning experience, and every homely security as possible. That also means, my life would revolve around my kids. Great thing as a mom, sure. That’s what my mom did for me, and I appreciate it to no end.

BUT, I have dreams. Many of them. I want to do A LOT in life. I want to achieve so much. And the simple truth is I can’t have both. Sure, I can do it after my kids grow up. But I don’t want to do it in twenty years. I want to do it now. And I want to do even more after that.

I decided to make it a conscious decision, because once you are pregnant, it’s an emotional decision. Then, there is life in question, and there is no doubt that I would choose my kids – if they existed. But because the child in question doesn’t exist, this can be a rational decision, rather than emotional one. And so both my husband and I are in full agreement that we don’t want children.

People say I will change my mind, or that it will be different when I am older. I doubt it. It might have been the case if this was an impulse decision. I have weighed every eventuality, including the fact that all my close friends and family now either have kids or are having kids, and they are always talking about kids. Here is the truth…I don’t feel envious. I feel relieved. Yes, their kids are cute, and they have all this motherly feelings. But when I consider that is what I might be doing with my time, I am immensely relieved that I am not. Instead, I am following my dreams. I am stretching myself to learn and grow in a way that is important to me. I couldn’t be satisfied sacrificing my ambitions to be a mother. I would much rather be all that I can be, and leave a legacy through my work.

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Amit Amin

Your story speaks to me – as I was reading your reflections, I was saying to myself – that’s me! If I have kids, I know I’m going to want to be a perfect dad, but then I won’t be able to pursue my dreams the way I want to. For speaking to me, and I’m sure many others in a similar place, your authenticity is appreciated.

Even more than that, it is inspiring! I have not yet been able to share so much of myself so publicly.

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Dolly Garland

At one stage, I would not have shared this publicly. But if I am going to comment, I am going to do it honestly. I practice what I preach, and one of the principles of Kaizen Journaling is Authenticity. If I believe in something, then I should have the courage to stand for it. And I do. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable. Especially when it’s controversial topics such as this, but it’s got to be done.

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Jane Robinson-Art Epicurean

I have always said “Children are over-rated”. Great read.

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Amit Amin

Haha! I guess you’ve been privy to some information most people don’t have.

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Claire Kerslake

Really fascinating post Amit about a subject that I don’t think society thinks about too much. Often it is accepted that of course you will have children or you are seen as ‘selfish’. It is certainly a complex issue and the maternal and paternal instinct can be amazingly strong. In many ways, even the fact that we are talking about the issue comes from the times we live in – in my parent’s times there were not the birth control options available that we have today and religious influences could exert amazing pressures on a couple to have many children.

Thanks for such an in-depth interesting view of the topic!
Claire

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cmo

Interesting post …very broad-ranging. For me the marriage benefit inequality issue (and the population problem) are very strong factors in my decision not to have children.

“Parents” might be happier with kids …but we live in a society where women get stuck with most of the work, where marriage tends to lead to much higher levels of stress, depression, and lifespan sacrifice in women versus men (whom marriage tends to benefit in these areas) and where, as you pointed out, a much larger percentage of fathers are getting their “me” time in while their wives can’t. Society tells me that as a woman my happiness is in doing right by those I love, supporting them, and the rest will fall into place or, I guess, sift into the cracks between that goal if I’m lucky and hardworking. And hard work is often extremely satisfying. But for me, that’s not enough; and I’m not smart/stupid enough to think I can beat the statistics somehow or, like those “above-average” drivers, just act on the assumption that I already am an exception I think in this context, it’s easy enough for men to say, “go for it,” but harder for everyone to measure the true costs.

To be fair: I respect the work many parents put in and the time and stress virtually all of them do, but the need to have kids isn’t a part of my makeup, and I feel that in many cases there are moral concerns with making your own people, however thoughtfully you choose to go about it.

Frankly, for me the decision to have kids would involve a decision to defer the big questions of what my purpose in life is, just accept an answer someone else handed out, and hope to equip my kids with better capability to deal with those issues themselves. Sure, maybe in the process, boiling my life down to mainly, well, someone else’s life for a few years would enrich it like a sauce, by reduction. But after that level of sacrifice and investment I’m not sure anyone is really capable of evaluating what is or isn’t worth regretting.

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Amit Amin

“Interesting post …very broad-ranging.”

Not by intention! I wish there were a simple answer to the question of whether I should have kids or not.

Thank you for sharing your insight – I tend to forget that things look so different for women. I know that there is inequality, but because the issue is often ignored, I forget that it can be so bad.

It’s interesting that you mention the population problem. I’ve had more than a few people tell me that not having children is unethical – that given our above average socio-economic status, we have a moral imperative to fight declining birth rates. I think this ‘moral imperative’ is just an excuse. I believe that I could do more for this country if I had more time to spend on my work.

What about with you? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you’re from a first-world country, near all of which are experiencing declining birth rates. Are you looking at it from a limited resources vs. the typical economic burden (we need more kids to replace aging workers) perspective? I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m just curious (I’ve met plenty of women who say Africans should stop having so many babies – none who’ve suggested that they should be the ones to make the change).

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