Can Happiness and Parenting Coexist?

A new analysis from the UK, just published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, concludes that kids make married couples happier. The first child only barely improves happiness, but the second child takes married parents to a new level of bliss. A third child makes them even happier.

The curious thing is why this seemingly obvious finding is considered newsworthy. In what possible way is it pushing the frontiers of science?

Well, it actually contradicts all the happiness research that’s come before. And that prior happiness research got a lot of mileage, and media attention, for saying that having kids makes people less happy. The three most-repeated attention-getters in the happiness field are:

1. Lottery winners quickly return to the same level of happiness they had before they won the lottery.
2. Paraplegics are just as happy as everyone else.
3. Having kids makes you less happy, not more.

The argument was that our sense of happiness is a perceptual illusion. We believe kids make us happy because we remember the fabulous moments of joy with our kids, while we tend to forget the stress of changing diapers, defusing tantrums, worrying about school admissions, consternation over them not eating food we so laboriously slaved over, et cetera. Kids give us lots to enjoy, but they give us even more to worry about. They cancel themselves out, happiness-wise.

Furthermore, the job of parenting squeezes out many of the activities that used to make us happy – we simply don’t have time to see friends as much, or attend live entertainment – and so our kids become one of our precious few sources of joy. This leads us to think our kids make us happy, when in fact we’re overall less happy than when we didn’t have kids. These findings had been replicated both in big-picture, longitudinal “life satisfaction” surveys, and in moment-to-moment surveying of temporary happiness.

A month ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd stoked the fire again. Her essay, “Blue is the New Black,” was about how female happiness goes down with age, and has gone down over the decades, despite all that women have achieved.  Dowd argued that women’s lives are simply too busy to be enjoyable, and kids are a huge factor in this way. She quoted one happiness scholar, “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.”

So, it’s against this backdrop that the new analysis stands out. Luis Angeles, an economist at the University of Glasgow, pulled 15 years of data on 9,000 households from the British Household Panel Survey. Life satisfaction in a variety of domains was part of that survey. According to his analysis, life satisfaction and happiness do indeed go down for those with kids – but that’s for all parents. When Angeles separated out married couples from all the others who have kids (cohabitating couples, separated couples, single parents never married, divorced parents), then a different story emerges: Kids do make married couples a little happier. And the more kids the better (up to three).

Perhaps what’s driving this data is less about kids and more about expectations. The vast majority of people who get married (not all!) want to have kids in their family. Doing so meets that expectation, and happiness is the result. By contrast, people do not expect to get divorced, and most single parents (with some important exceptions) didn’t plan to end up that way. Happiness might go down, but it’s wrong to suggest that kids caused the drop in happiness. It makes more sense that life not going to plan is causing the drop, and having kids when life doesn’t go according to plan makes getting back on track even more complicated.

It can seem strange that this is studied at all. Do you need a scientist to help you know if you are happy? I don’t, and I am.



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