In the past, it was assumed that a complete and happy life involved marriage and children. While this view has changed somewhat, it is still common for people to believe that children are a key component of happiness. However, recent works have suggested that this is not the case.
Daniel Gilbert wrote Stumbling on Happiness in 2006. In this book, he claims that the satisfaction level of a married person drops when the first child arrives. The happiness levels only increase when the last child departs.
Arthur Brooks wrote a somewhate similar book, Gross National Happiness, in 2008. In his book he claims that there is a seven percentage point difference between parents and non-parents in terms of their likelihood of reporting that they are happy. In this case, the non-parents are more likely to report being happy.
My academic neighbor at Florida State University, Robin Simon, recently claimed that the statistical data shows that no group of parents (single, married, etc.) reported having greater emotional well being than people who never had kids.
When considering these claims and findings, it is important to keep in mind that measuring happiness is a tricky thing. Even when “happiness” is replaced with terms like “emotional satisfaction”, there is still the problem of determining exactly what is being measured. After all, happiness and emotional satisfaction are not like blood pressure: one cannot simply attach a device and get an objective, numerical reading.
While people use the word “happiness” as if they knew what it meant, it has long been clear that people tend to mean very different things by the term. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, tried to sort the matter out as did John Stuart Mill. While modern authors also try to define the term, it remains a slipper matter. Of course, from a practical standpoint people can probably roughly estimate how “happy” they think they are.
Of course, this also raises another problem. The results are based on what people think (or, more accurately, what they say). Oddly enough, people can be mistaken about being happy (and not just because people generally do not know what the term means). Some people think they are happy until they find they are not. This is very similar to how people think they are healthy until they actually get a check up or try to do something like run a 10K. A person can also not realize that he is happy. This might because he is mistaken about the nature of happiness or because he has not really thought about it that much. For example, the modern American view of happiness tends to be a fairly self focused and material conception. Given this sort of view of happiness, it is hardly surprising that people would find having children reduces their happiness. After all having kids seems to involve having less for oneself.
In light of the above, any discussion of happiness must take into account those two critical concerns: first, people use the term “happiness” very differently and second, the data rests on what people say rather than an objective measurement.
Laying aside those two critical concerns, there is the question as to whether the general claim about parents being less happy than non-parents is true or not.
On one hand, people seem to talk a great deal about how important their children are to their happiness. People also willingly have children, which seems to indicate that at least some of them expect that this will improve their lives in some manner. Also, parents get to experience events that are typically described as joyous occasions, such as the accomplishments of their children.
On the other hand, parents seem to experience many things that would certainly seem to lead to unhappiness. For example, think about what parents go through with babies: sleep loss, stress, time loss, and expenses. Even as the kids grow up, the stress, time loss and the expenses remain. In contrast, a person without kids has far more free time, less stress and far fewer expenses (in general-obviously a particular single person can be more stressed and such than a particular parent). As such, it is hardly surprising that childless people say they are more happy than those who have children.
Since I don’t have children, I really cannot say anything about being a parent that is based on experience. Overall, Ive found my childless existence mostly satisfactory. In comparison to my friends who have kids, I seem to be generally happier than some, but less happy than others. Of course, the same is true in regards to my friends who do not have kids: I’m more happy than some, less happy than others.
Of course, I greatly enjoyed seeing my nephew graduate from high school in June and seeing him compete at the State Track meet (he throws rather than runs). Honesty compels me to say that at those events I felt that I was missing out on a part of life by not having children. Of course, whether I would be happier if I had children or not is a matter of mere speculation. Maybe I would be happier if things had been different in my life and I had children. Maybe I would be less happy. I suppose I’ll never know.