Parenting and Happiness

post by jkaufman · 2012-10-03T13:43:58.406Z · score: 20 (25 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 40 comments

If you're trying to decide whether to have kids it would be helpful to know whether you should expect yourself to be happier childfree or as a parent. The press reports it both ways, passing on the results of conflicting studies. I would like to find a good summary by someone who has read all the relevant research and understands which are the strong studies, but I've not found one. [1] Instead I've tried to read up on this enough that I can have an informed opinion, but there's enough research out there that I could be off. So here's what I've learned, after reading lots of abstracts, the "related work sections" of several papers, and finding two papers that I think do about as well as you can.

Summary: the research isn't that good, is all correlational, and how parenting affects your happiness varies widely by demographics (age, gender, income). Neither a simple "parenting makes people happy" nor a "parenting makes people miserable" are justified.

The most basic question in any research about happiness is "how do you know how happy people are?". While it's unsatisfying, the best we can do really is just to ask. How you ask matters, however: when parents are primed to think of their kids when asked about their happiness ("How happy are you as a parent?", "Has having kids made you happier?") they tend to say that their kids make them very happy. Some of this is probably a warm glow that comes of thinking of your kids, however, and so by first bringing up this glow and then asking about happiness you get answers that are atypically positive. Plus the social pressure to say you're happy as a parent. Studies that simply ask about happiness and parental status separately, as part of a broad survey, seem much more trustworthy to me because they should avoid this bias.

So what do they ask? I looked at two studies in depth that analyzed existing surveys. Those surveys asked:

GSS: General Social Survey (USA)
"Taken all together, how would you say things are these days?"
LSS: DDB Lifestyle Survey (USA)
"I am very satisfied with the way things are going in my life these days" ("definitely agree, generally agree, moderately agree, moderately, disagree, generally disagree, or definitely disagree").
SOEP: Socio-Economic Panel (Germany)
"How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?" [2]
BHPS: British Household Panel Survey (UK)
"Have you recently been feeling reasonably happy, all things considered?"

These questions aren't ideal; I'd rather we had some way to directly measure happiness. But given that we don't have that, knowing how likely each choice is to lead to me answering positively to the questions above is still useful.

The second big question is how to deal with confounding factors. Many studies simply gather a sample of parents and non-parents and ask them how happy they are. Parents and non-parents differ in consistent ways, however. Two of the big ones are that parents are more likely to be married and have a lower household income (Herbst and Ifcher 2011). Marriage and money tend to both make people happier, so if you just compare parents to non-parents you're going to be misled in one direction by marriage and in the other by income.

The most robust way to deal with this problem is a randomized controlled trial. Then we can compare the happiness of the people assigned to have children with those assigned not to. I've not found any studies doing this, probably because I can't see anyone agreeing to participate in one. [3] Some sort of natural experiment, like a factory that had a major accident sterilizing a shift's worth of workers, might provide a setting for good data, but even then you'd have to worry about the long-term effects on happiness of involuntary sterilization via industrial disaster.

Which means we're left with studies that look at variation, trying to tease apart causation. The standard way to do that is to look at parents and non-parents self-reported happiness and control for anything you suspect might be interfering. In A Bundle of Joy: Does Parenting Really Make Us Miserable? (2011), Chris Herbst and John Ifcher ran this on two very large US surveys, the General Social Survey (GSS) and DDB Lifestyle Survey (LSS). They compared people living with children under 18 (parents) to everyone else (non-parents), which means they're more measuring the effect on happiness of active parenting, not of having had kids. For example, grandparents would generally be in the 'non-parent' category, even if they're getting substantial happiness from their grandchildren which they wouldn't have if they'd not had kids. Still, the effect just over the 18 years when a child is typically at home is still of interest.

They found that as a whole parents were less happy, but also that they were more likely to be younger, married, lower-income, all of which have substantial effects on happiness. Adding controls, they found that the negative effect of parental status on happiness goes away if you control for age, gender, and race, and it becomes positive if you add income, employment, marital status, and education. Whether it's reasonable to use income as a control, however, is not clear. They found income was substantially lower among parents (GSS: $30,767 vs $38,959; LSS: $27,973 vs $39,445) but it's hard to say whether this is because richer people are less likely to have kids, stay-at-home parents give lower household income numbers, or something else. There's also the question of whether there's anything non-demographic that might lead affect both happiness and the desire to have children.

Mikko Myrskyla and Rachel Margolis try to get around this in Happiness: Before and After the Kids (2012) by looking at individuals over a time window around having children. They used two surveys, one German (SOEP) and one British (BHPS) that tracked people for an average of ~11 years, looking at self-reported happiness among other things. They limited their interpretation of the surveys to people who had no children at the beginning and then had their first child during the study period, which was 4,513 people for the SOEP and 2,689 people for the BHPS. They found that people tended to see a temporary increase in happiness in the years before the birth of a child, but that afterwards they tend to drop back to their long-term average. They made charts of this, broken down by several factors:

 

By age at birth of child

 

By age at birth of child and gender, German (SOEP) only

 

By gender, with controls, German (SOEP) only

 

By birth order, German (SOEP) only

 

By marital status and gender

I think the most straightforward interpretation of these charts is that having children doesn't have much of an effect on your happiness overall, but being about to have children does make you happier. Another intepretation, however, would be that people often decide to have kids when they're at a point where their life is together and they're quite happy, and then when the child is born they're less happy. Either way this and the finding that older parents are happier suggests a strategy: keep planning to have kids 'very soon', putting it off month after month until you're in your early 30s.

With the finding that younger parents tend to be less happy, in addition to the explanation that older parents tend to have more resources I'm also curious whether younger parents are more likely to have children when they don't intend to. Given that only people deciding to have kids face this question, I'd rather exclude from the sample all people who didn't make the choice. Unfortunately I don't think "was your first child an accident?" is a standard survey question.

Another issue is that because older people tend to report that they are happier, independent of children, I'd really like to see what these charts look like if you include non-parents. You'd show on each chart a line representing the happiness of an age-matched sample of non-parents from the same study. Without that I'm somewhat skeptical of the age-happiness pattern of the first chart.

There's also the question of how applicable results from Germany and Britain are to people making this choice in the US. In general the results from the German and British studies are close enough to each other, however, that I think they probably do generalize well to the US.

(Prompted by a discussion in which people were asserting that "there is a negative correlation between having kids and being happy" and "people usually think that having kids will make them happy, but studies show that this is a misconception".)


[1] Know of one? Let me know!

[2] This is a translation from the German. The wording of happiness-related questions can be important when comparing between studies, so don't read too much into these words.

[3] And if you did get some people to participate, I'd seriously worry about how representative they were of the general population.

(I also posted this on my blog)

40 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Emile · 2012-10-03T15:39:56.683Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, I don't think I particularly expected that having a kid would make me happier, and I don't think having more kids will make me happier yet I still plan to.

(and also, if I was convinced that partial lobotomy followed by a life of smoking pot, playing world of warcraft and living off welfare would make me happier, I still wouldn't do it)

Either way this and the finding that older parents are happier suggests a strategy: keep planning to have kids 'very soon', putting it off month after month until you're in your early 30s

There's also a higher risk of more deleterious mutations for men, and low fertility for women.

comment by atorm · 2012-10-04T00:23:25.746Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Why are you having kids?

comment by Emile · 2012-10-05T08:10:39.034Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Because I want to? It's not really easy to figure out the true reasons for why one does something (there's a high probability of rationalization), but probable reasons include:

  • I like kids, and tend to get along with them well
  • it's a nice excuse for being able to play with Legos again
  • I like teaching, and finding games for teaching
  • A sense of social responsibility: if I can afford to raise kids in a better environment than average, I should do so (see also nykos's comment in this thread)
  • My parents, my wife's parents, etc. etc. prefer to have grandkids
  • I'm still relatively young, and know that it's better to have kids early than late (it's easier, the kid has a lower chance of having genetic problems, and we have more energy)
  • I expect that when I'm older, having kids will be more interesting and useful
  • Raising kids is a bit of a challenge

(Yes, some of those reasons could be described as "because it will make me happier")

comment by torekp · 2012-10-08T00:06:42.917Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Here's a few more:

  • My wife's an awesome person, there should be more people like her
  • We can probably make this child happy

Parental happiness comes from these factors, but only if you first care about these factors independently of the effect on your happiness.

comment by blashimov · 2012-10-18T20:53:04.193Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I plan to because I appear to have a very strong reward circuit around children (especially happy children). I quite literally enjoy a child's smile more than any food I have ever eaten, for example.

comment by Decius · 2012-10-05T02:49:50.708Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What do you want more than you want to be happy? I can understand "I think that a frontal lobotomy would end 'me', and I don't care about the creature that will occupy my body after I die in such a manner.", but that's different in a very key way from what you said.

comment by Emile · 2012-10-05T08:16:15.409Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Even if it was still "me" (say if you dropped the lobotomy part, but could still convince me that such a life would make me happier), I still wouldn't want it not approve of it.

See Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-06T23:29:20.851Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe we should taboo “happiness” without adjectives and always precede it by “hedonic” or “eudaimonic”, because I think people usually start to talk at cross purposes during discussions like this one.

comment by Decius · 2012-10-05T23:43:51.882Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Semi-rhetorical questions:

Do you think that you have significant input into what it is that makes you happy?

Do you think that you can intentionally change what brain hormones are released in response to certain stimuli?

Do you think that you have free will?

Do you think that you can decide what your brain's reactions (micro and macro) to specific stimuli are?

My answer to all four questions is yes, even though I think the rational belief is no. I decide that I will adjust my happiness and my values such that I am made happiest by following my values- and one of the things which I value is the well-being of others. I sidestep all of the difficulty in calculating the well-being of others by simply noticing how I feel about it, and working outward from there.

comment by Emile · 2012-10-07T08:48:44.487Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Depends of your threshold for "significant"; no; yes; no.

My answer to all four questions is yes, even though I think the rational belief is no.

Shouldn't that be a warning sign? "I believe X, but it's rational to believe not-X" usually means you don't really believe X, but are merely professing it, or you believe you believe it, etc.

comment by Decius · 2012-10-07T19:53:51.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I believe that I am not rational, and that it is rational to be rational. One of those is an observation about reality, and one of those is a logical conclusion.

All four questions are intended to be different statements of the same state-of-universe. Having different answers for them is not supposed to be possible.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-10-05T02:54:32.201Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you want more than you want to be happy?

I can't speak for Emile, but... are you suggesting that there's nothing you would choose over your own happiness?

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-10-04T12:34:51.240Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

There are alternatives to doing a literature review and reasoning from first principles; for instance, running a cheap experiment (this is my preferred method).

If you are not sure if you would like having kids, then ask around and see if you can have a niece, nephew, younger cousin, etc... come stay with you for a summer (you can even frame this as doing their parents a favor by letting them go on a vacation by themselves).

comment by juliawise · 2012-10-05T00:47:13.669Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

We did this by moving in with a pregnant couple last year. It was highly educational for us, and they got some free childcare.

comment by selylindi · 2012-10-03T17:03:34.553Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm tempted to send the "with controls" graphs to the newspaper and suggest the headline: HAPPINESS CAUSES CHILDREN.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2012-10-03T17:25:18.918Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

That's not that strange, if you think about it.

comment by jkaufman · 2012-10-03T17:25:57.528Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Another possibility is that people tend to have kids 1-3 years after getting married and the happiness bump we're seeing is mostly that people really like the first few years of marriage. Not sure how to interpret the (differently shaped) happiness bumps in the "unmarried" case, though.

comment by jmmcd · 2012-10-03T14:22:30.541Z · score: 6 (18 votes) · LW · GW

Either way this and the finding that older parents are happier suggests a strategy: keep planning to have kids 'very soon', putting it off month after month until you're in your early 30s

LOL? I doubt if it's that easy to trick the brain. Add in the possible damage done by miscommunication ("I thought you said you wanted to have children this year", "No that was just a strategy...") and the very serious danger of postponing a bit too long and failing to have children even though it's desired, and this strategy looks like the product of a graph-reading robot, not an intelligent human.

Great article otherwise.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2012-10-04T10:35:22.359Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Off topic, but does anyone have information on when super-intelligent designer babies are likely to be here?

comment by zslastman · 2013-06-10T15:28:45.892Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is kind of at risk of becoming a blog post. TLDR; No super babies, maybe ever. Better babies now, if you're evil. Cyborgs easier. Large but shrinking problems with 'failed attempts' will probably always exist. Gattica plausible in near future to the unscrupulous. All subject to large uncertainties about how brains work.

Technology has been here for centuries. It just depends on your moral flexibility.

We know that intelligence is very heritable (this is actually a fairly complex concept resting on large assumptions that I recommend looking up, 'additive' heritability is a serious underestimate). Right now though, as with everything else, we only know a small fraction of the variants involved. This may change in a big way in the next, say, twenty, or it may turn out to require detailed understanding of the pathways involved, in which case it will take longer.

In any case, the situation right now is that while a clone of your would have an IQ similar to your own, reading a genome tells us only a small fraction of what that clone would tell us. So we can sequence embryos' genomes and pick the good ones. That process will, over the next half century, become cheaper and effective, but is of course still bounded. We can only pick from the best genomes you and your mate could have created. If you are exceptionally intelligent your kids will probably still not be, as you represent a complex and fortuitous combination of alleles.

Or if you don't care about them being yours, we can just pirate someone else's genome. That's doable right now, subject to massive ethical problems with 'failed attempts'.

We can also, potentially, insert new variants. Blashimov is right in that this is a big uncertainty. For now any such process would create lots of failures, which is obviously unacceptable, even to a truly ruthless baby shopper, as they might only show their flaws later in development, after you've named the little dimwit. Improvement seems likely, however I would guess there'll always be an ethical barrier posed by these . I would also guess we can pick some low hanging fruit and get to the upper percentiles of the human distribution quite quickly. Then it will become difficult. Evolution won't have left too much free money on the table. Combining genome piracy and tinkering seems like it should yield even better results.

I expect human/machine interface to be a more promising,ethical, and rapid means of cognitive enhancement.

If people are interested I could do some research and a post on this.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2013-06-11T03:16:04.712Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the info! Could make a good discussion post.

comment by blashimov · 2012-10-18T20:46:15.155Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Intelligent beyond removing very localized mutations that impair "normal" function? I'd be interested in a expert too, but only a little bit, as I would expect them to have very high uncertainty. We only know a little bit about the interaction between genes and intelligence. First we'd have to understand that, and then we might be able to have children pre-disposed to the current upper range of humanity. But if you mean really "super," we'd have to understand a lot more about the algorithms for creativity, insight, etc. and then probably do a lot of redesign. Which might be the difference between breeding a better bird and building an airplane.

comment by amitpamin · 2012-10-04T01:58:10.156Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've looked at many of the actual studies, although not the recent one you mentioned. I agree with your overall analysis, but would add one addendum - there are different types of happiness. The delineation I find most applicable here would be Daniel Kahneman's. He suggests that there are two types of happiness - experiential and remembering.

Experiential is measured by his day reconstruction method, as well as the experience sampling method mentioned by benthamite. Call it hedonic, moment by moment happiness.

Remembering is as it suggests - how we feel when we remember our past. This is why meaning has importance - we like to feel we've done things with our lives (e.g. he suggests this is why we try to fill our lives with 'memorable' events, even when these events themselves do not create the largest positive affect at the time).

As you've said, the papers are mixed on the experiential happiness side - some papers (self-report + experience sampling + day reconstruction) vote positive, others negative. On the remembering side, all papers I've seen have reported increases. What does this mean? I have no idea - the problem is that happiness is poorly understood.

Usually this is not a problem - most decisions lean quiet clearly in one direction or the other - that is, clearly increase happiness or clearly don't. What does it mean if parents report lower life satisfaction, but higher meaning in life? No idea.

But as the research stands now, I personally would not have children. Consider the effort required to raise children. Take that same effort and apply it to other areas of your life, where the happiness research is more clear, and your return on investment will be much higher (by an order of magnitude, given the effort required to raise children).

comment by juliawise · 2012-10-05T00:56:53.098Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Take that same effort and apply it to other areas of your life, where the happiness research is more clear, and your return on investment will be much higher

The outside view is that parents put way more hours into parenting than non-parents put into any of their meaningful projects. If I have children, I will put in long hours because I will need to. In my current life as a non-parent I work a full-time job and put some effort into side projects, but not that much effort. If you're already using your time efficiently to accomplish cool things, you can expect that parenting will take away much of that time and cause you to accomplish less. But if you're like most of us, you'll just have less time for goofing on the internet, etc. Compared to whatever it is you currently do in your spare time, producing well-reared children might be quite a high-impact thing to do.

comment by jdinkum · 2012-10-04T19:33:30.705Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

While reading the original post I thought of Kahneman's Ted Talk on happiness.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2012-10-04T05:08:10.725Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for using research to take personal decisions, a virtue absent even in some LWers, that must be praised wherever it is signalled.

comment by nykos · 2012-10-04T11:50:20.107Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Intelligent people are more likely to think on the consequences when deciding to have a child. But there is a prisoner's dilemma type of situation here:

One reason smart people forego reproduction is because they might feel children make them more unhappy overall for at least the first few years (a not unreasonable assumption). Or simply because they are not religious (smart religious people do still have lots of children) As a consequence, in 20 years, the average IQ of that society will fall (bar some policy reversals encouraging eugenic breeding, or advances in genetic engineering), as only the less intelligent breed. Since, all other things equal, smarter people perform better on their jobs, the average quality of services provided in that society (both public and private) goes down. So in the end everyone becomes more unhappy (even though unhappiness of a childless smart person resulting from societal dysgenics may not outweigh the temporary unhappiness from having a child)

comment by blashimov · 2012-10-18T20:29:18.190Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Flynn effect contradicts this, and not just superficially in that IQ scores have been rising for the last 20 years and the next 20 years aren't going to be that different, but that it points to a strong non-genetic component of IQ. The cultures who become wealthy and have fewer children have pretty much the same code as cultures that are a little behind, same within countries. Lastly, 20 years is barely a single generation. You'd have to pretty much wipe out large sections of the population to see a 1 generation change.

comment by malthrin · 2012-10-18T19:15:27.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

IQ reverts to the mean across generations.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-10-19T10:48:11.467Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Regresses, reversion would be overstating it.

comment by MartinB · 2012-10-05T17:10:11.314Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It doesnt follow that it has to go down. It could also stay stable. After all - all the bright people that do not reproduce have parents somewhere. So there are people produced by parents who are not in the mental cluster that prevents them from reproduction.

comment by palladias · 2012-10-03T14:21:48.360Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One approach to studying happiness I've seen is giving people buzzers that go off at random intervals and prompt people to rate how happy they feel right now on a 10 point scale. Researchers usually average these datapoints to judge how happy the people are.

Now, per Kahneman, we know that this is a way to survey the experiencing self, but the remembering self doesn't rank experiences by averages. I don't know of any study that uses happiness buzzers to compare groups by peak-end ratings (nor am I sure what the 'end' should be -- maybe an average of the last day's datapoints).

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2012-10-03T16:27:39.652Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are referring to the experience sampling method, which is regarded as the gold standard in happiness research. Over the last two months, I have used this method to measure my own happiness (here's how).

comment by jkaufman · 2014-03-14T17:50:04.222Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I started rating happiness on a ten point scale in response to a randomized buzzer four months ago and am expecting a child in the next few weeks. I intend to keep up the sampling.

comment by Pablo_Stafforini · 2015-04-23T06:08:52.037Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Any updates?

comment by jkaufman · 2015-04-27T18:24:49.619Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I eventually got annoyed at the interruptions and stopped, but only about a month ago, 11 months after the baby was born.

http://www.jefftk.com/happiness_graph is up to date with the final samples

I think the rise up to December 2013 was mostly me getting used to the scale I was using.

The baby was born 3/26.

There's no data from periods when I was asleep or trying to sleep, which misses out on the main source of unhappiness: night-time wakings.

The period with no data is data loss from a broken phone -- with TagTime I needed to do manual backups which I didn't get around to very often. This lost data was for a chunk of my paternity leave, sadly.

The low point in late january corresponds to my mother dying; the high point before that corresponds to lots of family being around for the holidays.

comment by shminux · 2012-10-03T16:43:16.977Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Your analysis clearly shows that there is no way to predict how happy you will be with your decision. Which means only one thing: if you feel like having children, do, otherwise don't. No need to over-think it.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-10-04T15:45:56.338Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your analysis clearly shows that there is no way to predict how happy you will be with your decision. Which means only one thing: if you feel like having children, do, otherwise don't. No need to over-think it.

Assuming for a second that the analysis shows what you say it does it still doesn't mean that one thing. It would mean that the statistics about the effect of children on happiness aren't enough to base your decision on. It would mean that when making one of the most fundamentally life changing decisions you can make you will have to use different information than happiness trends. "Happiness" is far from the only metric with which to reason about a decision.

Unless your ability to reason is absolutely abysmal you probably are better off researching and "thinking" about important life choices. Especially when you have good reason to question whether your instincts are aligned with your own reflectively considered preferences on a subject.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-10-04T12:37:23.591Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your analysis clearly shows that there is no way to predict how happy you will be with your decision. Which means only one thing: if you feel like having children, do, otherwise don't. No need to over-think it.

No, there is a way.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2012-10-04T05:05:18.708Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How about the hours you won't have to yourself, and the extra hours of work you have to put in to pay for the child, adolescent, young adult, or LWer later?