Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Science Surprise of the Week: Parents are Less Happy

Here's an article from Newsweek on the latest official study on parenting:

To quote:

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term "bundle of joy" may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. "Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."

This study might be important, but not for the obvious reasons. Let's see, you go through 9 months of pain and discomfort, with an apex in childbirth. Then you have a mewling little thing that outputs several pounds of gross stuff per day, your social life is now anchored to that thing, it catches diseases and makes you sick, becomes a teenager and won't talk to you and wrecks your car, and then goes to college and spends $100,000 of your money on four years of sleeping
through class. Then it moves back in with you.

And that doesn't sound like it will make you happy?

Come on, people should know that if you want to be happy, the best person to do it is you and the best way to do it is to live your life focused on maximizing your happiness. The whole point of having kids is that they're autonomous, which means, surprise, they're not focused on your happiness all the time. So of course I'll do a better job of keeping myself happy than my child will!

This is bad news if life is about accruing a commodity called happiness. So a childless person will report more happiness and well-being. Children wear you out and screw up your life. But is life really about maximization of the Maslow hierarchy? If you're all about self-actualization, you probably shouldn't bring non-selves into the picture. Yet you have a need to do it, despite the occasional resulting unhappiness.

Looking at the paragraph above, remove the pronoun "it" and replace it with "he"/"she"/"him"/"her." All of the sudden it looks different, a less "modest proposal." It looks more possible and more reasonable because kids aren't "its," they're other selves. The benefits of having another person around who is independent of your own desires, these benefits are not measured in surveys of well-being. Parents specifically sacrifice happiness, knowingly (or it should be knowingly), when they have kids.

The point is that real life is centered around sacrifice and not happiness. And this doesn't mean childless people can't be part of "real life," either. I offer the church as an example for how childless people can have family, with all the accompanying happiness-sapping relationships. St. Paul never had kids, but his family was the church. He wasn't necessarily self-actualized or even happy all the time. One day he was singing hymns in prison, but the next he was writing in tears to his Corinithian church because his family -- his source of happiness -- was hurting him. So you don't need to have children to have a full life, but you do need other people. And not to make you happy. You just need 'em.

It's just not about the happy-meter, and the sooner we get over that idea the better off -- even happier -- we'll be.

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