From a biological perspective, it is not a mystery why people have kids. But because humans are able to weigh the benefits and consequences of their decisions, a strictly biological explanation isn’t sufficient to explain why we have kids.
There have been many social psychology studies that attempt to answer this question by examining whether people who have kids are happier than people who do not have kids. And study after study is consistent in finding that this is not the case. People who have kids are found to be happier than their peers with kids. The newspaper articles than proclaim that “Children do not make you happier” or that “Having kids makes you less happy”. Making people who have kids look like dupes for having kids especially since so many parents “claim” that they do derive happiness from their children.
One of the most recent articles of this type called The Myth of Joyful Parenting essentially states that parents delude themselves into thinking they are happier because children are so much work that they need to use this to explain to themselves why they do it.
To me this misses the point completely. I’m planning on doing a short series of blog posts to explain why I think that is, starting with this one – Happiness and Parenting: The limits of social psychology.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in the scientific method. I have my Master of Science in experimental psychology. I have done research and I continue to be involved in research with my part-time job. But there are limits to what science can do, prove and explain.
I’m disputing the results of these studies. I have no doubt that they did in fact find that parents are less happier than non-parents. But what does that actually mean? What are these studies really studying?
The inherent problem with this type of research is that you can only observe what is, you can’t determine why it is the way it is. To be able to say that having kids makes you less happy you would need to randomly assign people who wanted say, two kids, into two groups. One group would have no kids, the other would have two kids and then you would test the parents in each group to see who was happier. There are some obvious flaws to this research plan, which is why it’s not done. For some reason people do not want research groups making major life decisions about how many kids they are going to have. (I know what is their problem?).
This setup would allow you to examine happiness with the population that is actually of interest and see if people who allegedly think children will make them happy and see if that does in fact occur. But even this study has problems. At what point to you measuring their happiness? It’s not necessarily a static variable. It could change over a day, or over the years. It could be dependent on how old your kids are. It’s also possible that this changes once the children have grown.
Because this study design is impossible most studies instead compare people who do not have children (most of whom would be by choice in our society) with people who do have children (which may be more or less children than they actual wanted. Even when a difference is found between these two groups we can’t know whether there is an additional factor that is in fact the cause of the difference. For instance, the difference in happiness could actually be due to people with kids tending to have a lower socio-economic status, or taking less vacations. Often studies try to take into account things like socio-economic status with statistics. But this can not be done for every possibility and can only be done for factors that have been identified. For instance, people who choose not to have kids may use a ‘happiness optimization rubric’ in making decisions whereas people who choose to have kids may use a ‘obligation rubric’. If this has not been considered by the study researchers there is no way of knowing if this is the case and whether their happiness levels could be the same with or without kids, just based on the obligations they take on (being someone who says yes instead of someone who says no).
There are studies that could be done though. For instance, you could compare people who wanted two kids and and had two kids to couples who wanted two kids but were unable to have kids. This would at least be a logical comparison. However, it could be prone to selection effects. People who have better adjusted to the fact that they are unable to have kids may be more likely to agree to participate in a study like this. If you are upset about the fact that you can’t have children, what are the odds that you would agree to participate in a study that probes this when there is no practical benefit for you?
You could of course also look at the reverse. People who didn’t want any kids but ended up having kids, compared to people who didn’t want any kids and don’t have any kids. However, I don’t think that many people would expect people who do not want kids to be happier because they have kids. Then again kids do have a way of winning you over. That being said, kids are a lot of work, a huge commitment and a sacrifice. If it’s not wanting to make, why would you expect it to make you happier?
People who want kids may not necessarily be happier if they are not able to have them. This might make them – sad.
Studies can only demonstrate what they have actually studied. But this is often very different from what is reported.
Next post in this series: Happiness and Parenting: Are we measuring what we want to measure?
“Play is not valued because it’s not accountable or measurable. We value the product rather than the process. Penny Wilson”
“Study after study has shown that parents, compared to adults without kids, experience lower emotional well-being — fewer positive feelings and more negative ones — and have unhappier marriages and suffer more from depression. Yet many of these same parents continue to insist that their children are an essential source of happiness — indeed that a life without children is a life unfulfilled. How do we square this jarring contradiction?
Two psychological scientists at the University of Waterloo think they have the answer. They suspect that the belief in parental happiness is a psychological defense — a fiction we imagine to make all the hard stuff acceptable. In other words, we parents have collectively created the myth of parental joy because otherwise we would have a hard time justifying the huge investment that kids require.”
But what are these studies really studying? The inherent problem with this type of research is that you can only observe what is, you can’t determine why it is the way it is. To be able to say that having kids makes you less happy you would need to randomly assign people who wanted say, two kids, into two groups. One group would have no kids, the other would have two kids and then you would test the parents in each group to see who was happier. There are some obvious flaws to this research plan, which is why it’s not done. For some reason people do not want research groups making major life decisions about how many kids they are going to have. (I know what is their problem?)
are we measuring what we want to measure
Studies that are done
Alternatives – people who wanted kids but couldn’t, people who didn’t want kids but got them
Not everyone makes their life choices based on achieving their optimum happiness. This is not strictly the domain of parents either.
I agree with you, many of these studies fail to take into account the wide variety of variables. Science was developed to help explain the world around us. Which is wonderful, who would of guessed that the elements were more than just fire, water, wind, earth! They do make for a great set up for Avatar The Last Air Bender (the TV series not the movie). One element that could help complete the studies, is purpose. Why does a student study late nights, write essays, take exams? I know very few people who enjoy the action of cleaning. Yet they are happy once the house is clean, and will clean because of that. They, just like the student, who sacrifice late nights because they are reaching for a higher goal. I believe that the joy of parenting is similar to that but on a much higher scale. As a parent you have a direct way of creating a better society, not only through your actions but also indirectly through your children (once adults they can choose how they live). Many will credit their strength to achieve their life goals to their parents’ strength and support. How amazing is that! How satisfying is that! How can that not bring happiness? Happiness as all emotions is complex, it can happen instantly and yet it needs nurturing to grow and be truly sustained despite or because of the obstacle. It is unfortunate that studies poorly show this. Perhaps one day we will be able to evaluate things such as happiness and anger in a more tangible way. Until then, we must be satisfied that though these studies can support general observation, they are incomplete and therefore cannot tell you the whole story.