December 18, 2009 Leave a comment
I’ve been meaning to write a post for quite a while about recent research on parenthood an happiness. Interestingly, there’s a long string of research that says that people without children are happier than people with children. (I addressed my doubts about it a couple years ago).
Turns out the answer is that the key measure is not happiness, but rather satisfaction. That makes a lot of sense to me. The authors of Nurtureshock (really, should read this book whether or not you are a parent) have a great blog now, and they discussed some of the latest research:
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.
Hey– I’ve got three– I guess I should be a ultimate happiness. Continuing…
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…
Here’s the new research and the proposed explanation:
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.
That makes a lot of sense to me. I also think that a key element is looking at “satisfaction” rather than “happiness” per se. I may not be all that happy when Alex is pouring water down our vents, Evan is throwing a tantrum just because he’s thirsty, and David won’t get off the computer– sure I’d rather be reading a book– but at the end of the day I’m a heck of a lot more satisfied.
So, where does Duke basketball fit in you ask? I took David to his first ever Duke game in Cameron this past week. It was only versus Gardner-Webb (Duke won by about 45), but it may have been my favorite Duke game ever. David has become a huge Duke basketball fan over the past year and that has brought me immense satisfaction and happiness. The truth is, in parenting, I’ve found that few things are more rewarding that having a child love something that you also love– be it reading, Star Wars, or Duke basketball. The moments of sharing in shared joys with my children bring a level of happiness that I really doubt can be adequately captured in a typical happiness survey. They more than make up for a lot of daily frustrations. One of my theories is that so many people want a same-gender child as them simply because it increases the likelihood that you will have shared passions (e.g., football vs. dance).
So, the short summary is that I’m pleased to see my thoughts on parenthood ultimately confirmed and that more thoughtful research shows I’m not an anomaly in being such a happy parent. Parenthood is great stuff, it would be a shame if most parents weren’t likewise benefiting.