Skip to content

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Share on

13 Comment on this post

  1. this might sound stupid – but could there be demographic issues involved too? If you ask X number of people from region A you might get the response that parents are unhappy (but that that could actually be reflecting other issues). If on the other hand you hask Y number of people from region B you’ll get a completely different answer – but for the same reason, that there are “other” issues involved. What about the socio-economic spread?

  2. An option you don’t mention, but the linked report of the study does, is that the happiness could also not be smoothly distributed over time. Having children might make you very unhappy for some time – be it because of the prosaic reasons of less sleep and more to worry about at first, or more enduring reasons that might last for decades – but that there is a large pay-off once the children are adults. The study, though, also reports that parents lag behind childless couples even after the children have left home.

    I think there are two important options still missing. Firstly, that there is a self-selection effect in place – the people who are most amenable to a childless life are the minority of people who don’t pursue having children, and just because they are happier that way doesn’t mean the people who do have children would similarly be happy about it.

    Secondly, perhaps we aren’t comparing like with like. It might be that there is no direct way to compare the happiness levels between parents and non-parents – they are not just quantitively, but also qualitatively different. This seems possible, given the extent to which raising a child changes your life – it could add a dimension of happiness for which there is no analogue for childless people, or make some change to the existing dimensions, which would undermine a direct comparison. Given just how intractable interpersonal comparisons of subjective experiences often are, there is scope for some incommensurability of this type.

  3. I don’t know the research, but this (from the study you cite):

    “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”

    doesn’t (necessarily) mean that having children makes people unhappy.

    There might already be systematic differences between people who choose to have children and those who don’t (which could explain the aggregate difference in happiness).

    This isn’t a particularly counterintuitive thought. If you’re relatively content with your life, then you might not feel the need to have children, etc.

    The methodological difficulties with these sorts of studies must be nightmarish. You need panel studies so you can study people over time. But even here – self-reports of happiness, satisfaction… I wouldn’t bet my house on their reliability.

  4. Great post, David!

    One suggestion I have is, I suppose, along the lines of your (4), but I’m not sure that it counts the claim that what parents are valuing is their happiness. J.S. Mill would no doubt have put this sort of point in terms of “higher pleasures”. As he put it, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. (And yes, Socrates did have children!)

    The trouble with this sort of research for me is that they ask things like “how happy are you?”, “how satisfied are you?”, or, “how stressed are you?”. We respond by thinking about how we *feel*, or about how many unsatisfied wants we have. While relaxing in a warm bath, we’d probably score very well on such questions. But in many cases where we are doing what makes us happy, we don’t *feel* particularly happy, or satisfied, or unstressed. Indeed, doing what makes us happy often puts all kinds of stresses on us: we feel challenged by it. Lolling around in warm baths can’t make us happy in the deepest sense.

    A parent is a bit like a climber part way up a high mountain. Such climbers, I would hazard, are not likely to report that they are very satisfied (they *really* want something they don’t have, namely to be at the top!), and on supposed measures of mental well being they would presumably score pretty badly: anxiety, stress, exhaustion, discomfort, and so on. But the climber is not *simply* trying to get to the top of the mountain: one could get there far more easily by helicopter. A climber might, indeed, feel a temporary sense of satisfaction on reaching the top, having climbed there, but soon enough this will pass and some other challenge will beckon (like getting back down, or climbing the next mountain). If this is true, then mountain climbing doesn’t bring a lasting sense of satisfaction. Parents may similarly feel a temporary sense of satisfaction at their child’s first walk, or graduation, or wedding. But parenting probably doesn’t bring a lasting sense of satisfaction either. So why do these things? We do them because the activities themselves are intrinsically rewarding. And what’s rewarding about them can’t be cashed out in terms of some *sense* of satisfaction or wellbeing – they bring us happiness all right, but in a deeper sense. They challenge and stretch us. They bring us a sense of doing and of acheivement. They make us feel alive. And what could be better than that?

  5. “Having children makes people unhappy” … one possibility is that children are a source of happineses, but they divert parents from other activities that also make them happy, so there’s a cumulative decrease in happiness. For example, raising children diverts energy from the parents’ relationship, which is a major source of happiness, and also diverts energy from work and achievement, especially for women. So the child IS a source of happiness for parents, yet total happiness goes down. I think this is different from any of your four explanations and there’s empirical support for it in the positive psychology & parenthood literature.

  6. I’m curious as to whether the claim in 1 is true: that those who have children by and large want children. It certainly might be the case that people (pressured by social, religious, political, and familial causes) who have children did not want them. There may be men who wished their partners had an abortion, or women would could not go through with the procedure for whatever reason. I would guess that, even in anonymized surveys, people might have a hard time admitting that they wished (or still wish) that their children did not exist,

  7. Thank you all for your comments. Some quick responses: I’m not sure I can answer Alexis’s question about region: though my understanding is that the data is robust across class.
    Marinus: I did mention (under 1) that those who have children might have become even unhappier had they not had children. I agree, though, that there are incommensurability issues.

    Jeremy– I’m sure you’re right to be sceptical. Scepticism about the data falls (again) under my category 1. I believe the data purports to show both that couples become less happy after having children and that couples with children are less happy than couples without.

    Jean: good point. I hadn’t thought of that. But if you’re right, and if you only cared about happiness, it would then still be rational to regret having children – since (if your explanation is correct) couples would be even happier without them.

    Eric: it’s an empirical question – although not one that will be easy to investigate. I can’t believe that the sets of people you refer to (those who secretly (or openly) wished their partners had had an abortion etc.), add up to anything other than a small minority….

    Simon. Yes, I think happiness gurus, like Layard, talk of happiness as flow…being lost in challenging activities, rather than in a warm bath. But one probably needs a more capacious category of well-being or eudaimonia to capture the fulfillment. I’m not sure I can relate to the ‘making one feel alive’ point – you must be having a happier experience. ‘Making one feel half dead’, more like it.

  8. David, If my explanation is correct, then it’s not necessarily going to be true that generally speaking, couples are happier without them. It might be that the very happiest couples are the ones that (a) have children, but also (b) do a good job of nurturing their relationship, and (c) make sure neither partner gives up too much to care for the children. It’s not out of the question that in this subset, you will find extra high happiness. So people don’t have to regret having children–especially if they can convince themselves (!) they’re in the blessed (a) + (b) + (c) category.

  9. I’ve not looked at any of this research, but I was wondering if anyone else could tell me whether the same is true of (a)couples who adopt and (b)couples who undergo IVF. The thinking being that if parents have gone through years of effort/bureaucracy, they might be more appreciative than those who conceive easily…

    Also, is anyone aware of cross-cultural comparisons? Perhaps countries with more tightly-knit extended families are happier (e.g. because granny can look after the kids at the weekend). I would expect those countries who provide more social support for childcare to have relatively happier parents.

  10. An interesting feature of this kind of question is how much more closely we look at this research methods/ interpretation of studies when the apparent results go against our values or assumptions. I guess in one way it makes sense, but assuming studies like this use a standard methodology similar to that used in studies where results are as expected, then the same scrutiny should be applied to the latter type of study too. I suppose I am trying to say that if we are going to use data to make decisions we need to work harder on a methodology/ interpretation standard that can be trusted, regardless of the results.

    Secondarily to this, I suspect there would be less interested in publishing a study that said parents like having children- so there may also be pressure to come up with these surprising interpretations.

    1. Irene, that’s absolutely true. And we should be wary of such studies: which are obviously more interesting (to academics and to the media) precisely because they’re unexpected. But this is not just one study – it’s several. Indeed, if you read the New York Times article I linked to, it points out that the Journal of Happiness Studies published a paper showing children did have a positive impact on life satisfaction – before then having to publish a retraction, when the author identified statistical errors.

  11. I’ve heard at least one researcher in this field suggest that the dilemma comes down to avoiding cognitive dissonance. The studies generally ask how people are feeling at the moment and kids often create stress and difficulties that might lead to lower average ratings of momentary happiness than a single person might report. But how could a parent believe that a child makes them unhappy when the child has become the primary source of happiness in their lives? This happens as free time and mental resources devoted to, say, relaxing outdoors, socializing, reading, etc. is diverted toward care-taking. What do you think?

  12. I was just listening to the science friday podcast not too long ago about everest, and they had a climber, leading a team to the top, and he described being at the top of everest, as a horrible experience. You’re exhausted, cold, a little dizzy from altitude sickness, you feel like you’re going to throw up, everything hurts… So summiting the mountain is mountain is not fun. You’re not happy in the moment. But once you get back to base camp, you’re happy. VERY happy.

    Raising children might have its costs, but assumedly there are highs that come with having children that far outweigh the costs. Seeing your child ride their first bike, discover butterflies, eat snow, graduate kindergarden, graduate high school, getting married, having children of their own, leading generally successful lives. These are summits that parents are trying reach, and they may not all succeed. But the ordeal of the climb is pretty monumental. If you’re constantly thinking of the summit, you can’t do what you need to do at the moment… change diapers, pay the bills, rescue the cat, clean up spills, learning algebra again to help your child learn algebra. Ask someone in the middle of the climb if they’re happy that they’re climbers, they would probably say no… after the climb… absolutely.

Comments are closed.