Children and happiness

There's been an interesting discussion this week in the lefty blogosphere about research that suggests having children does not make people any happier– in fact on average, a little less happy, than their childless peers.  The discussion was largely inspired by this article in Reason (the premier Libertarian publication) and I first came across it thanks to Ezra Klein's take.  Nick Bailey's Reason article, is ostensibly about declining birthrates in first-world nations, but its the subheadline that makes it interesting, “Why are People Having Fewer Kids?  Perhaps it's
because they don't like them very much.”  Here's the heart of the children and happiness argument:

“Economists have modeled the impact of many variables on people's
overall happiness and have consistently found that children have only a
small impact. A small negative impact,” reports
Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert. In
addition, the more children a person has the less happy they are.
According to Gilbert, researchers have found that people derive more
satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching
television than taking care of their kids. “Indeed, looking after the
kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework,”
asserts Gilbert in his bestselling, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).

course, that's not what most parents say when asked. For instance, in a
2007 Pew Research Center survey people insisted that their
relationships with their little darlings are of the greatest importance
to their personal happiness and fulfillment. However, the same survey
also found “by a margin of nearly three-to-one, Americans say that the
main purpose of marriage is the 'mutual happiness and fulfillment' of
adults rather than the 'bearing and raising of children.'”

suggests that people claim their kids are their chief source of
happiness largely because it's what they are expected to say. In
addition, Gilbert observes that the more people pay for an item, the
more highly they tend to value it and children are expensive, even if
you don't throw in piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and
college tuitions. Gilbert further notes that the more children people
have, the less happy they tend to be. Since that is the case, it is not
surprising that people are choosing to have fewer children. And if
people with fewer children are happier, then people with no children
must be happiest, right? Not exactly, but the data do suggest that
voluntarily childless women and men
are not less happy than parents. And they sure do have more money to
squander as they try to pursue what happiness they can and strive to
somehow fill up their allegedly empty lives.

I'm enough of a social scientist to know that I should not generalize from my own experience, but rather that I should just accept that I'm an anomaly, by truly deriving so much happiness from my children, but I just cannot help but wonder if these studies aren't missing some fundamental piece.  Good lord parenting is hard– and tiring, and restricting, and frustrating (yes, I could go on), but the joys from it are so overwhelming that it is no comparison.  As a social scientist, I cannot help but see this question in cost/benefit terms and yes, the costs of parenting are quite high, but the benefits are quite literally like nothing else in life.  Am I really so rare in that?  I don't value my children because they are expensive (though, I'm not foolish enough to think I am immune to universal psychological biases), I value them because so many of their actions– from a simple smile, to any word Alex or Evan says,  to David's endless questions about science– are tremendously psychologically rewarding to me.  Am I really so unusual or might some alternative measures of happiness better capture this.

How to handle a Republican smear

One of the themes you are sure to see more of in the general election, is that Barack Obama is lacking in the patriotism necessary to be president.  As if the “Hussein” middle name isn't enough, he doesn't wear an American flag pin!!  Rather than roll over for these stupefying attacks, Obama strikes back and takes it right to the Republicans.  Glenn Greenwald explains:

By far, the most significant pattern in how our political discourse is
shaped is that the right-wing noise machine generates scurrilous,
petty, personality-based innuendo about Democratic candidates, and the
establishment press then mindlessly repeats it and mainstreams it.
Thus, nothing was more predictable than watching the
“Obamas-are-unpatriotic-subversives” slur travel in the blink of an eye
from the Jack Kingstons, Fox News adolescent McCarthyites, and Bill Kristols of the world to AP, MSNBC, and CNN. That's just how the right-wing/media nexus works.

Far more notable is Barack Obama's response to these depressingly
familiar attacks. In response, he's not scurrying around slapping flags
all over himself or belting out the National Anthem, nor is he
apologizing for not wearing lapels, nor is he defensively trying to
prove that — just like his Republican accusers — he, too, is a
patriot, honestly. He's not on the defensive at all. Instead, he's
swatting away these slurs with the dismissive contempt they deserve,
and then eagerly and aggressively engaging the debate on offense because he's confident, rather than insecure, about his position:

About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

“A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get
the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were
untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans'
benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

“That is a debate I am very happy to have. We'll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”

Greenwald then uses this example to make a larger point about how Democrats generally respond (poorly) to such Republican attacks:

Obama's approach illustrates the fundamental difference between these two types responses:

Even though I am kind of against the war and a little bit against the
new FISA bill for now, I love my country and want to protect Americans,
too, just like the Republicans do — honest (the standard Democratic
response); and,

* If anyone's patriotism should be considered suspect, it's those
who want to send Americans off to die in a worthless and destructive
war and those who want to eviscerate our basic political values by
torturing, detaining people with no rights, and spying on American
citizens with no warrants (the gist of Obama's response here).

Slimy accusations that one is “soft on the Terrorists” or “unpatriotic” will be effective
if people see the accused, in response, nervously trying to deny the
accusations, trying to run away from one's own beliefs, defensively
trying to comply with the demands of the accusers in order to make the
accusations go away. By contrast, the accusations will be rendered
worthless if the accused stands by one's own principles and convictions
and aggressively seeks out the debate, turning the accusations around
on the accusers.

Most Democrats have yet to learn that lesson.

Although there's been a lot of concern among liberals that Obama doesn't know how to fight the right-wing smear machine and that his calls for bipartisanship means he will just roll over for these attacks, I think this is good evidence to the contrary.  I hope (and expect) to see more of this type of counter-attack from Obama during the general election campaign (yes, Hillary is done.  Sorry, mom).

Fox News: Fair and Balanced (and breasts!!)

There's a great website up ( that wonderfully mocks Fox news, not for its absurd conservative bias, but for its attempts to grab the conservative “family values” audience with salacious appeals (e.g., strippers on the business report).  It's great stuff, take a look.

A challenge…

Watch this 60 Minutes segment on the political railroading of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and tell me George W. Bush is not running a corrupt, embarrassing, banana republic of a government.  And, if you are already aware that this is (sadly) the case, but haven't seen this segment, it is 13 minutes very well spent.

How people get here

One of the fun things about writing this blog is occasionally checking the stats and seeing how people came to find me.  Not surprisingly, most are direct hits, and after that, links from the wolfblogs site, but it is always interesting to see which searches got people here.  Thanks to a recent post, turns out I'm the number 4 google hit for: Robert Jarvik is a phony.  Not that I've done a thorough review, but I'm pretty confident that my long-ago post on hair whorls leads more people to my site than any other search term.  Of course, the big question is how many of the people behind random searches ever come back.  If I had a nickel for every one… I might have a dollar.

Obama and the Educated

At lunch with a friend today, he asked me to opine why Obama has become the clear Democratic frontrunner.  I suggested that with the high level of media attention both candidates have now received (and thus much greater voter familiarity with Obama), the fact that Obama is simply a more appealing candidate had won out.  I get back from lunch and read the following post from Jon Chait, which nicely ties this into the fact that Obama consistently does much better among educated voters:

I bring this up because today CNN has a new Texas poll which shows, among other things, that voters who watched the last debate are dramatically more pro-Obama:

“Among the one-third of Texas Democratic primary voters who watched
all or most of the debate, Obama leads Clinton by 20 points,” said CNN
senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

“Among the 42 percent who followed news about the debate, Clinton
and Obama are neck and neck. And among the one-quarter of Texas
Democrats who paid no attention to the debate, Clinton leads Obama by
nearly 20 points.

“Is this because Obama appeals to better-educated Democrats and they
were more likely to watch the debate? No. Even among college-educated
Democrats, the more attention you paid to the debate, the better Obama

This is certainly more evidence that
high-education voters favor Obama not because there's something effete
and latte-ish about his campaign, but because voters who pay more
attention to the campaign tend to favor him, because he's just a better

No wonder I've always liked Chait so much.  Any political journalist who reaffirms my own conclusions has to be really good. 

The Power of Narrative

I've been meaning to post for many months about the power of narrative in understanding political campaign.  Emory Psychologist Drew Westen has written some great stuff on the matter and so has Political Science PhD turned on-line journalist extraordinaire, Paul Waldman.  I've had a link on my “to be blogged” page since last July, when Waldman first wrote about the importance of narrative in campaigns.  Last July, Waldman wrote:

The most effective political communicators weave their stories into
our stories. Nonetheless, the fact that at the moment, Barack Obama has
his campaign narrative written, and the others mostly don't, is not a
guarantee that he will be the next president. For starters, primary
campaigns are much more volatile and subject to influences like the
weather on primary day than the general election.

But the candidate who wins is likely to be the one whose story
contains answers to our most fundamental questions. How will Americans
see themselves and their country — its present, and its potential —
in 2008? The candidate who can understand that question, and place him
or herself within the answer, is likely to be the one taking the oath
of office in January 2009.

Last week, he came back to the subject to essentially say “I told you so.”  And, of course, explain why Obama has been so effective with his narrative where other major candidates have failed:

Those [previous] columns were written in July, but even before that?indeed, as
long ago as his explosion into national consciousness at the Democratic
convention in 2004?Obama has been telling a story perfectly keyed to
the current moment in history.

As Obama tells it, the country is held hostage by a political class
that sows partisan and cultural division, making solving problems ever
more difficult, while the country yearns for a new day of unity. As the
youngest candidate, the only post-boomer candidate, the only bi-racial
candidate, and the one candidate with a preternatural ability to obtain
the good will of those who disagree with him, he can bring all
Americans together and lead us to a future built on hope.

Your own reaction to that story may be a quickening of the
heartbeat, or a disgusted '”Give me a break.'” But there is no denying
that many, many people are willing to sign on to it. And though he is
careful not to say it himself, Obama''s story benefits greatly from how
often other people say that he is a Man of Destiny. This is a story we
know well, because we have read it and watched it so many times before.
When Luke gazes out across the barren desert of Tatooine, the wind
rustling in his hair as the twin suns set and the music swells, we know
just what it means, even if he doesn''t know it yet. He is The One, he
will defeat the forces of evil and save the galaxy. 

(How much do I love that Waldman references one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.)  Waldman concludes by discussing McCain's successful use of narrative in 2000, but seeming failure this time around.  On the latter point:

McCain told an interesting story when he ran for president in 2000:
the system was corrupt, and with his unmatched courage, independence,
and integrity, he would rid Washington of its blood-sucking influence
peddlers. But in this campaign he has told no story at all. What is the
problem McCain's presidency is supposed to solve? Why is he the only
one who can solve it? These are the questions to which winning
campaigns know and communicate the answers. McCain doesn't even seem to
have thought about them.

And what he communicates about himself is tethered firmly to the
past. As much as his Vietnam suffering and courage gives him a halo
with the pundit class, the key moment in McCain's personal story
happened forty years ago. It does not connect to anything the public
wants out of their next president. And the more he talks about the
present and the future, the worse he does. While last week he
criticized Barack Obama by saying the Democrat's speeches are
“singularly lacking in specifics,” few candidates on either side have
been as vague as John McCain. How many people could tell you just what
it is McCain wants to do if he becomes president, apart from staying in
Iraq for a really long time?

And if he should find himself facing Obama, McCain will discover
that his own weaknesses fit in neatly with the story Obama tells. Where
Obama is young, dynamic and optimistic, McCain is old, subdued, and
prone to telling voters that things are likely to get worse before they
get better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, McCain offers no indication
of where we as citizens fit into his story, what a vote for him is
supposed to say about us.

It is well worth reading the whole thing, as well as his two earlier articles on the topic (they are all pretty brief).

%d bloggers like this: