A Teeny-Weeny Baby Puzzle
I have been thinking about babies recently, for various reasons (let’s call them Saul). It had always struck me that procreation was a classic example of a prisoner’s dilemma. It was good for each couple to have children, but if everyone churned out these resource-chomping monsters it was disastrous for us all.
That was until friends (philosophers) kindly pointed out that study after study shows that having children actually makes people unhappy.
This seems almost unbelievable, completely counter-intuitive. It requires some explanation, especially in the light of what I take to be the following fact: that if you ask parents whether they regret having children, a vanishingly small number would say that they do. So what’s going on? Perhaps readers can help me: but here are some possibilities.
- The research is straightforwardly wrong. There may be all sorts of errors, methodological and otherwise. For example, those who have children by and large want children. It may be that after having children, they are less happy than before. But perhaps they would have become even more unhappy had they not been able to have children.
- Parents are deluded. They suffer from a sort of false-consciousness. They think children have made them happier, and they’re just wrong. This is quite possible. We are creatures who like to provide post-hoc rationalizations for our choices. And in evolutionary terms it would be disastrous if we believed children caused unhappiness and discouraged parenthood (although a more efficient evolutionary mechanism than tricking parents into thinking they’re happy would actually be to make them happy).
- Standard deviation of happiness. Children may lower the average happiness levels of parents, but they may also result in peaks of happiness that would otherwise be less frequent. People will choose to swap one lifestyle for another with lower average happiness so long as it also has more moments, or episodes, of happy intensity.
- Happiness versus Experience. Parents value something over and above happiness. They may recognize that they are less happy with children – more stressed, anxious, tired etc.- but believe that their lives are enriched in other ways, which cannot be cashed out in crude hedonistic terms.
Those are the four options I can think of. Have I missed any?