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Why Don’t Kids Make Us Happy?

Do "children and happiness" go together like "love and marriage"?

Why does having kids reduce our happiness? When posed on his late-night eponymous show, Stephen Colbert deemed the answer obvious: "Because children are a pain in the ass."

Undoubtedly they are, but I think the question is worth exploring further. My former PhD student Julia Boehm and I got the opportunity to do so recently when we were asked to write a commentary on a terrific new paper about fundamental human needs (including the need to reproduce) published by Doug Kenrick and his colleagues (see Doug's recent PT blog post about it).

Julia and I decided to address the so-called "parenthood paradox." Essentially, the paradox is this: Although achieving every other human motive (like satisfying thirst or hunger, gaining social status, or finding Mr. Right) makes us tremendously happy, having children appears to be the one exception. Indeed, research suggests that despite most people's widely-professed desire to have children, parenthood is associated with decreased, rather than increased, well-being. To offer just one often-cited example, working women asked to recall their previous day in excruciating detail rated taking care of their children as just slightly more positively than the unpleasant tasks of commuting and performing household chores.

To explain the puzzle of parenthood - namely, why most of us are convinced that our kids make us happy, while the empirical data show that they do not - Julia and I proposed two sets of explanations - the first having to do with evolutionary theories and the second having to do with problems in how happiness is typically tracked and measured. Let me expand.

Evolutionary Explanations

(1) Evolutionary psychologists offer some intriguing arguments about why (and under what circumstances) children should (or should not) make people happy. First is the rather obvious point that, while the birth of a child fulfills one important fundamental human need (i.e., reproduction/parenting), it happens to interfere with most of our other basic needs. (According to Kenrick et al., these other basic needs are (a) physiological, (b) self-protection, (c) affiliation, (d) status/esteem, (e) mate acquisition, and (f) mate retention.) So, no one will be stunned to learn that the sleep deprivation, fatigue, and physical discomfort that accompanies a new baby is likely to interfere with our physiological needs, and that having a child is likely to heighten concerns about safety (both our own and that of our initially very vulnerable offspring) and to threaten the social relationships we had when we were childless. The limited leisure time and our changed focus, interests, and activities (Barney anyone?) may no longer complement those of our friends without small children in the home. Furthermore, parents (especially mothers) may experienced diminished status in the workplace. For example, working women with children (but not men) have been found to earn less than their childless peers. Children may also trigger feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-esteem (e.g., "The baby is still crying, the first-grader still can't read, the teen-ager says he hates me...I must be doing something wrong"). And, finally and not surprising to anyone with kids, parenting responsibilities often interfere with our ongoing commitment to an emotional and physical relationship with our partners. This is supported by quite a few studies showing that couples with either very small or teen-age children are significantly less satisfied with their marriages than other couples. (Ages 6 to 12 - coincidentally the ones of my own children - seem to be golden.) So, taking together all of these consequences of becoming a parent, we see that the challenges that parents encounter make it hard to fulfill their own needs, which likely and not unexpectedly diminish their happiness.

(2) A second response to the puzzle of parenthood is the argument that the short-term costs of raising a child - which are arguably greatest when the child is young - may be compensated by the long-term advantages. For example, as parents age and become frail, they may garner financial assistance from their grown-up children; indeed, adult daughters have been found to be the most likely caregivers for elderly or ailing parents. Adult daughters also tend to offer companionship, including telephone calls, visits, grocery runs, and emotional support. And, let's not forget that the long-term advantage of offspring is the survival of our genes into future generations. So, in sum, despite the apparent drawbacks to a parent's well-being in the short-term, children may provide substantial benefits in the long-term.

(3) Third, and finally, as Satoshi Kanazawa has persuasively argued in his PT blog, in many ways the demands of rearing children in our modern-day environment are completely at odds with how our ancestors raised their children. For example, as I alluded to above, research suggests that children have their most negative impact on their parents' happiness when they are adolescents or at the infant/toddler stage. In ancestral environments, adolescents would not have resided at home; instead, they would have lived independently after reaching puberty. Thus, the characteristic behavior of teenagers today - namely, rebelliousness and independence-seeking - is reinforced by laws that make parents responsible for their children until they are 18. Moreover, as Hillary Clinton famously discussed in her book It Takes a Village, raising children has historically been a collective responsibility. Our ancestors brought up very young children in the context of a larger village, clan, or tribe, which allowed childcare responsibilities to be shared across many individuals - aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and neighbors. By contrast, consider the level of distress experienced by modern-day parents, as only one (a single parent) or two (a couple) are available to respond to a child's cries and needs. When the baby wails in the middle of the night or the 7-year old runs across the street, no one else is there to watch or take action.

Concerns About Measurement

Revisiting The Colbert Show, we encounter the second set of explanations for the puzzle of parenthood, which have to do in part with whether happiness is really the appropriate indicator of what children offer parents. I had taken his statement out of context, but what he really said was, "...Children are a pain in the ass, I'll grant you that, but the feeling that comes with children is a feeling that is superior to happiness...a sublime feeling."

(1) Before delving in the issue of sublime feelings, let me begin by underscoring that the most mundane problem with regard to measurement is that all of the studies that have shown that parents are less happy than non-parents have necessarily been correlational and have lacked control groups. After all, researchers cannot randomly assign 100 people to become parents and 100 people to refrain. The consequence of this state of affairs is that the results of the parenting and happiness studies could have a variety of alternative explanations, including the possibility that people who choose to become parents are different from childless people in multiple telling ways.

(2) However, the more interesting - and perhaps substantively richer problem - concerns the fact that it is extremely difficult to capture with paper-and-pencil measures what it is precisely so wonderful and elusive that children grant their parents. Consider the following possibilities:

(a) First, it may be reasonable to assume that the transient and fleeting occasions of joy and meaning (read: feelings of the sublime) that us parents derive from our children are not adequately captured by the measures of happiness and positive emotions that researchers typically use. In the words of one article on the topic, the "one minute when your child comes running to greet you with a smile and a hug may be worth a hundred minutes of cleaning up after them." In other words, because happiness is not merely the sum of positive experiences, evidence suggesting that caring for a child is just slightly more enjoyable than commuting and vacuuming does not necessarily mean that parents are not happier than nonparents in a more profound, deeper, more substantial way. For example, it's possible that although parenting may not make people "happy" in a hedonic sense, it may promote a sense of meaning and purpose that may be just as significant to happiness as are fleeting positive moods. The fact that the loss of a child is considered in almost all cultures to be the worst tragedy that can befall an individual lends further support to the notion that researchers' measures that only ask people how "satisfied" they are and how often they experience joy, interest, and enthusiasm are somehow failing to tap certain essential elements of a happy life and a "good" life.

(b) Second, besides fostering greater meaning in life - and perhaps a more intensely-felt sense of meaning - having children can also provide us with many other valuable and important resources that contribute to our happiness and a life well-lived. However, such things can be difficult to assess with standard measures of well-being. For example, children bestow us parents with a legacy - that is, a contribution to society that will persist beyond our own lifetimes. Becoming a parent is also closely tied to our identities. Indeed, most people across cultures expect, desire, and actually do have children. Regardless of how much happiness is actually derived from children, being a parent is strongly aligned with most cultures' prescribed goals and dreams for us - the goals and dreams that most (though not all) of us envision for our lives. Moreover, the experience of raising children contributes to the story that we tell about our lives. Life stories rarely are simply about recounting one pleasure after another; instead, people typically incorporate both their ordeals and triumphs into their "life narratives." As such, life stories that involve children can add to our purpose in life and cultivate a sense of flourishing and fulfillment.

(c) Finally, being a parent (and, indeed, the sense of being alive) involves coming face to face with a wide range of emotions and experiences - not just the high highs but also the low lows. Parents are likely to experience extremely positive emotions (e.g., pride at watching our toddler's first steps) along with extremely negative ones (e.g., anguish at our teen's rejection). Interestingly, people tend to value having a breadth of emotional experiences, even if that includes negativity and even suffering. Consider, for example, the 19th century adage from Alfred Lord Tennyson that "'tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." The potential for passionate love (or, in the case of parenting, for joy and contentment) outweighs the potential for disappointment or a broken heart. In sum, despite the apparent disparity in well-being between parents and nonparents, current measures of happiness may be unable to gauge the more powerful and profound - and literally immeasurable - ways that children enhance our lives.

Any other ideas?

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