Do children make you happy?

“There was never a child so lovely, but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.“?- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.”?- Franklin P. Jones

The link between children and happiness is one of the more controversial areas of happiness research.  Studies show that spending time with children brings about roughly the same amount of happiness as doing housework.  In other words, not so much! More than that, the overall effect of children on happiness is slightly negative.  

The main study of children and happiness tracked the mood of 900 Texan women as they went about their day.  The activities they did were then put in rank order, based on mood.  Taking care of the children also caused about the same happiness as surfing the web and checking emails.  Incidentally, the study did find some more predictable findings: the activities that brought the best moods were sex, socialising and relaxing, and the ones bringing the lowest moods were commuting and working.

To most people, this is indeed a controversial finding, and one that goes against every intuition they have. But to me, it makes perfect sense. I’m a 28 year-old male with my feet firmly planted in bachelorhood. I see children as noisy annoying little things that have ruined one too many cinema experiences. But other people go nuts for them, picking them up, responding to every utterance the little things make with equally nonsensical replies, putting pictures of them everywhere, and generally saying “aaaaaawwwwwww” a lot.

I don’t get it, personally. Maybe one day I will, but I do see that there’s a discrepancy between what the research says and what people intuitively believe. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, proposed three reasons that the scientific research contradicts our intuitions:

1) Expected Value. We put a lot of value on things that are expensive and that we put a lot into. That’s why selling a product too cheap can be a bad idea – it might be seen as low quality. Because people put so much of everything into raising kids, it is natural to assume that there’s a big payoff from it – whether or not there actually is.

2) Selective Memory. Gilbert puts it best: “One ‘I wub you, Daddy’ can erase eight hours of ‘no, not yet, not now, stop asking’.” In other words, you can have many lows, but when you think back, you tend to just remember the highs.

3) Huge Time Investment. So much time is spent raising kids. If you spend that much time doing any one thing, you’d have to pass on doing a load of other things that might make you happy; so of course your day-to-day happiness would take a slight hit. The positive implication is though, could you spend so much time doing any other one thing and still be as happy? That’s his implication, by the way, not mine; I can think of lots of things!

If I could add a fourth one, it would be that this measurement of happiness is based on a specific definition of it, which we talked about in a previous article. The results might have been different if other measurements were used; for example, one that takes into account how much meaning you feel your life has. Perhaps children give your life a greater sense of meaning and purpose; even if they don’t bring more pleasure overall. 

Refs:

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776-1780.

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