Fw: [ChildfreeMs] New York Times Article "Does Having Children Make You Unhappy?"
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Date: Thu, 02 Apr 2009 03:57:43 -0000
Subject: [ChildfreeMs] New York Times Article "Does Having Children Make
April 1, 2009
Does Having Children Make You Unhappy?
By Lisa Belkin
Children do not bring happiness. In fact more often they seem to bring
unhappiness. That is the conclusion of one academic study after the next
and there are so many that it makes one wonder if researchers kept
trying, hoping for a different result.
In the April edition of the online Journal of the British Psychological
Association, researcher Nattavudh Powdthavee, of the University of York
in Great Britain (whose own academic work concludes that there is no
difference between the life satisfaction levels of parents and
non-parents) summarizes the existing studies:
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
And it is not just the years of active parenting that tamp down
happiness, Powdthavee writes:
There is also evidence that the strains associated with parenthood are
not only limited to the period during which children are physically and
economically dependent. For example, Glenn and McLanahan (1981) found
those older parents whose children have left home report the same or
slightly less happiness than non-parents of similar age and status. Thus,
what these results are suggesting is something very controversial that
having children does not bring joy to our lives.
Which leads to the seminal question why does anyone have children in
the first place? If, statistically and on average, parents are no
happier, and many are less happy, then those without children, then what
are all these baby showers about?
Is it because we see others struggle, but we figure it won't be as much
of a struggle for us? Because we focus on the upside the coos and the
smiles and the little chubby cheeks? Powdthavee believes we do "delude"
ourselves to an extent when choosing parenthood:
There is a widespread belief in every human culture that children bring
happiness. When people are asked to think about parenthood either
imagining future offspring or thinking about their current ones they
tend to conjure up pictures of healthy babies, handsome boys or
gorgeous-looking girls who are flawless in every way. This is the case
even when the prospective parents know that raising a child will be
painstakingly difficult; they tend to think quite happily about
parenthood, which is why most of them eventually leap into it.
And are these rose-colored blinders somehow fitted for us by nature?
There are theories about that, too, Powdhavtee writes:
Why do we have such a rosy view about parenthood? One possible
explanation for this, according to Daniel Gilbert (2006), is that the
belief that "children bring happiness" transmits itself much more
successfully from generation to generation than the belief that "children
bring misery." The phenomenon, which Gilbert says is a
"super-replicator," can be explained further by the fact that people who
believe that there is no joy in parenthood and who thus stop having
them are unlikely to be able to pass on their belief much further
beyond their own generation. It is a little bit like Darwin's theory of
the survival of the fittest. Only the belief that has the best chance of
transmission even if it is a faulty one will be passed on.
Maybe though, it is because we are not "deluded" at all; perhaps see
clearly that parenting is hard, but there are moments enough of them
to make it worth it. Powdhatvee explores that idea, but concludes that
what we see as "enough of them" is probably a bit of a delusion in
itself. Follow along here, it's a little complicated, but worth it:
It is, if you like, like winning a lottery. We may be incredibly happy at
first if we win £1,000,000 from the National Lottery. But soon enough
that money will go into our bank account or into our other extravagant
spending sprees in the forms of nice cars or a big house in the country,
most of which, after having got them, we do not spend a lot of time
thinking about everyday (see, for example, Kahneman et al., 2006).
However, because the experience of winning the lottery is so salient to
us perhaps partly because it is such a rare event if we are asked to
think about it again, we are likely to exaggerate the value that it
It is, on the other hand, much more likely that we as parents will end up
spending a large chunk of our time attending to the very core process of
child care such as, "Am I going to be able to pick up David from his
school in time?" or"`How do I stop Sarah from crying?" Most of these
negative experiences are a lot less salient than the positive experiences
we have with our kids, which is probably why we tend not to think about
them when prompted with a question of whether or not children bring us
happiness. Nevertheless, it is these small but more frequent negative
experiences, rather than the less frequent but meaningful experiences,
that take up most of our attention in a day. It should therefore come to
no surprise to us that these negative experiences that come with
parenthood will show up much more often in our subjective experiences,
including happiness and life satisfaction, than activities that are,
although rewarding, relatively rare.
Powdhatvee has no children. But don't assume that he has rationally and
scientifically decided not to have them. To the contrary he wrote this
essay (which has been generating angry headlines in British newspapers,
such as "Children don't make you happy says an expert who doesn't have
any") to explore why, in spite of the research, he does want to be a
parent. He plans to ask his girlfriend's father for his "blessing" any
day now, he writes, and then the couple want to have children, "hopefully
one girl and one boy."
Why did you decide to have children? Are you happier than before they
were born? And was "happiness" even one of the reasons on your decision
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