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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