Paul Dolan Ph.D.

Happiness by Design

Will Having Children Really Make You Happier?

Until now, the evidence had all gone one way. Now we may know better.

Posted Jul 14, 2015

Konstantin Yolshin/Shutterstock
Source: Konstantin Yolshin/Shutterstock

When I first began researching happiness, most of the findings were not surprising: Becoming unemployed makes people very unhappy. Marriage provides a happiness boost. Being very poor is miserable and being very rich is not all it's cracked up to be. When I encountered the research on having children, however, I was surprised to learn that—on average—the effect of having children on happiness is, at best, neutral.

On reflection, this is not so surprising. The biological imperative only requires that we enjoy sex and then live the consequences. Our kids look like us and give us just enough that we do not abandon them early in life; they don’t really need to make us happy at all.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this explanation, though, so I took a close look at the questions used in happiness surveys. I found out that most big surveys don’t ask people how happy they are. Instead, people are asked to evaluate how satisfied they are with their lives. There are big differences between being happy and satisfied. Sports stars know this well; it is possible to be happy with a performance, but not completely satisfied.

As with life.

This got me thinking about whether existing happiness measures were adequate for capturing what really matters in life. Specifically, could they capture what is important about having children? There were no measures to capture the purpose associated with our experiences in addition to their pleasure. Happiness is not just about having fun all the time—feeling that what you do is meaningful, rewarding, and worthwhile is important, too. I had a hunch that children might affect the purpose of our experiences, even if there was a small-to-non-existent effect on experiences of pleasure and evaluations of life.

I was right.

In 2006, I conducted a small survey of over 600 Germans. According to this, and a 2010 nationally representative survey of over 12,000 U.S. residents aged 15 years and older, spending time with children is one of the most meaningful experiences we have: It’s right up there with working and volunteering, and contrasts with relatively more pleasurable activities, such as eating and watching television. True happiness isn’t just about how you think about life or your experiences of pleasure as you go about your life. It’s also about how purposeful what you do is.

My wife, Les, and I now have two young children—Poppy, who is seven, and Stanley, who is six. Sure, reading the same book to them over and over and teaching them their times tables isn’t always fun. But it sure is fulfilling. As I discuss in Happiness by Design, being happier is about having more and better experiences of pleasure and purpose over time than those of pain and purposelessness. Although what makes everyone happy is different, the evidence suggests that children make most people happy because they bring purpose.

My own experiences agree.

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