Thursday, May 08, 2008

Kids, marriage, happiness

It's a Trap!

And despite the belief that children were the apples of our eyes, they actually had a negative impact on happiness.

The more kids you had, the sadder you were likely to be, Prof Gilbert said.

US and European studies had shown that people's happiness did spike while they were expecting a baby but sharply plummeted after the child was born.

The low point came when children reached the ages of 12-16, and recovered only when they had flown the coop, he said.

"In reality ... children do seem to increase happiness as long as you're expecting them, but as soon as you have them, trouble sets in," he said.

"People are extremely happy before they have children and then their happiness goes down, and it takes another big hit when kids reach adolescence.

"When does it come back to it's original baseline? Oh, about the time the children grow up and go away."

So, it's basically a big initial high, followed by a decline, and eventually a crash, and then you build back up to where you started. So, if you're the kind of person who can resist the draw of that initial high, you sidestep the foray into negative territory.

"The psychologists tell us that we like things more when we pay for them - what does that sound like? It sounds like children. We pay for them in time, attention, blood, sweat and tears - what kind of idiots would we be to devote all of that to the rearing of our young if they'd didn't bring us some happiness?"

The fact that parenthood crowded out all other things in life could explain why we considered children our greatest source of joy, he said.

"Parents tell me all the time that: `My child is my greatest source of joy'," he said.

"My reply is that: `Yes, when you have one source of joy, it's bound to be your greatest'."

You know, he raises a very interesting question. Why would people have kids if they didn't bring them happiness? With this data, it suggests that kids *don't* bring happiness to everyone (at least, not a net happiness). If people knew this, would they decide not to have kids? Or would biological drive and societal pressure still win out?

I don't want to discount the fact that some people find lots of happiness in having and raising their kids. But we need to stop pretending that it's a universal thing. And we need to stop willfully ignoring the fact that having kids can have a negative affect on many marriages.

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Anonymous said...

I've read Daniel Gilbert's stuff before (his book and his blog) and he strikes me as having done his homework. No doubt his conclusions about children will give many parents fits.

It's important to realize that, when a psychologist is speaking what he feels to be a general truth about people, he is not also judging those of whom he speaks. So sure, kids don't make most people happier in the long term, but he's not saying people are idiots for having them. Kids may become your a person's only focus and therefore that person's only source of joy, but he's not also saying that this is bad.

He's just speaking the neutral, observable facts as he knows them. Unfortunately, people tend to read what psychologists say through the lens of their own sensitivities, insecurities, neuroses, biases, unconscious feelings, etc. I hope he doesn't get too much hate mail.

Anonymous said...

As a side observation, I think it interesting that they find divorced people are less happy than married people, yet still conclude marriage is "a constant source of joy."

Makes me wonder what it is they imagine made these divorced people so unhappy.

Kelsey said...

I have always wondered if that might be the case - that people think that kids make them so happy because in fact they feel that they have put so much effort into it that...well, it has to be making them happy, right?!