The Myth of Children

The same Atlantic article mentioned below continued with this unique thought:

Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t.

The ‘multiplicy of self’ theory would posit the following answer:

There is no inconsistency between someone’s anxiously hiking through the Amazon wishing she were home in a warm bath and, weeks later, feeling good about being the sort of adventurous soul who goes into the rain forest. In an important sense, the person in the Amazon is not the same person as the one back home safely recalling the experience, just as the person who honestly believes that his children are the great joy in his life might not be the same person who finds them terribly annoying when he’s actually with them.

Any thoughts?  I’m not so sure.

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5 comments

  1. I’d like to read that study. Did they measure people’s happiness who didn’t have kids? Kids leaving the house/graduating college can coincide with other late-life changers – like retirement – which are independent on having kids. What is the happiness cycle of someone without kids, constantly happy?

    To me, the text you posted may be assuming people are having kids because they are sad. People are not having kids because they need to get happy.

    I think it would be interesting to see how happy people in their 70s are who had kids, vs. people who didn’t.

  2. Sorry, forgot to fill out my info – that last post was mine.

    I bet people in their old age are happier when they have someone like their son/daughter to care for them. Plus, grandparents are obsessed with their grandkids, right?

  3. Well, my parents have been empty nesters now for the past 3 months and I have to admit that there has been an increase of happiness. Hahahaha…..should I be offended? =)

  4. Al, I thought the same thing. I’d need to see the actually study to look at- in addition to what you mentioned- one, how they measured happiness (because, really- doesn’t it fundamentally vary from person to person? To me, happiness is hard to quantify and the topic often came up in the lab I worked in and a lot of my psych classes.)and two, what they used as a control

    Personally, I don’t agree. Granted I’m not married, or have kids myself, but my job revolves around children and… well, it’s hard for me to think of a time when I was happier.

  5. A lot of very interesting thoughts/comments here.

    I agree that its tough to take this basic thought on its face. It must be more complex than how this is laid out.

    My assumption is that determination of ‘happiness’ was done using a method popularized by one of my favorite positive psychology academics, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘cheeks sent me high’). In his book, “Flow,” he developed his “Experiencing Sampling Method,” where individuals held beepers that went off at random intervals. When the beeper went off, the person wrote down what time it was, what he was doing, how he felt, etc. This is now a rolling sampling process that has been done for 25 continuous years from hundreds of thousands of individuals. These types of general ‘happiness’ assessments are gathered from that basic data.

    In general, I agree with all of your thoughts though, that there is a distinction b/w a ‘moment’ of happiness versus general happiness/feeling of well-being.

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