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Do Children Make You Happy? As Happy as Blogging?

As someone who plans to eventually produce offspring who will spend half their time adoring me and the other half realizing every ambition I failed to make good on, I've always been a bit dispirited by the finding that having children makes you less happy. My suspicion had been that there was some difference between being "happy" and being "satisfied," but that seemed like such an obvious objection that it couldn't possibly explain the data. Unless it does.

In terms of pleasure, the results confirmed earlier findings, suggesting that we spend an awful lot of time doing things we don't find pleasurable, including "work" and "shopping". Out of 18 key activities, "time with children" and "sex" both came in around mid-table, far below "outdoor activities" and "watching TV". However, consideration of the ratings for "reward" (as opposed to pleasure) told a rather different story, with "work" now the top scorer, and "time with children" not far behind.

It may not be very fun to do your work or care for your children, but the two seem to be important contributors to a satisfying life. Which makes intuitive sense. On a moment-to-moment basis, I sort of loathe writing this blog. I would far rather be drinking a beer on my porch. But in the aggregate, I'm much more satisfied with my life when I'm writing this blog.

Looking at this data, I'm expecting that children will be almost, but not quite, as rewarding as writing a blog. And I plan to tell that to them, and often.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 5, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

I think your last paragraph says it all. Don't get me wrong, raising children is hard work, but with the attitude you expressed, I think you'll find it rewarding and satisfying. Mine are in their thirties now and are doing great. I take great pride in them.

Posted by: JoyP | August 5, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Yup. As someone with children, I would suggest that you view them and your happiness not in utilitarian terms--which, even with the best of intentions flattens pleasure into utils and doesn't account for qualitative differences--but rather, as you seem to be doing, as something fufilling in the larger narrative of your life. When you are 50-60 won't you want to take pleasure in the success of your children? Won't you take pleasure in debating healthcare with them? Even before that, won't you take pleasure in teaching them what you know? If your own view of a flourishing life includes children the you really would be less happier over the long term without them.

Posted by: Castorp1 | August 5, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Now you'll get tons of parents commenting. Serves you right. Now, being a parent myself. I'd like to share the emotional brew that comes with the position: Guilt, terror, shame, anxiety, love, joy, guilt again. More terror and anxiety. Add worry.

Posted by: simmonslcsw | August 5, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

You're not drinking a beer on your porch right now? Do those slave drivers at wapo actually make you come into the office?

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | August 5, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

"As someone who plans to eventually produce offspring who will spend half their time adoring me and the other half realizing every ambition I failed to make good on"

You're going to be a Jewish mother?

Posted by: pj_camp | August 5, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

"do children make you happy?"
it is not about happiness.
it is about a deeper shade of joy.
count it for joy.


where would one even begin...


would a mother say that she is feeling "happy" while experiencing natural childbirth?
not so likely.
but when she gives birth to a fully created, sentient, brand-new, person who actually grew inside of her for nine months, and now is a living being, is there a feeling beyond happiness, that cannot possibly be measured?
absolutely.
and the experience of raising children goes to that place.
profoundly loving and caring for another human being would not be described in terms of happiness.
it calls to the depths of every emotion.
it makes us more human in the most beautifully profound ways there are.
it teaches us about deepest empathy.
about being able to love someone more than yourself.
about unconditional acceptance.
about cycles and seasons of time.
about caring more deeply than you ever imagined possible.

there is no study that can measure the happiness
of
seeing a child step off of a plane after a big journey,
or seeing your child happy with themselves,
or blowing the candles on their birthday cake, and making a wish,
or the moment when a child's fever has finally broken at two in the morning,
or when you watch your child through the window in their classroom, and see them smiling, and being their own person!

there is no study in the world that can measure that!


Posted by: jkaren | August 5, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

As someone who is involuntarily childless, I'd like to present a slightly different, complementary view. My husband and I expected to have children, and our parents expected to have grandchildren, and we all thought there'd be the big happy family thing with teaching them to bake and read science fiction and do clog dancing, god forbid, but it didn't turn out that way. We have made the decision not to pursue further treatments and now I feel a real joy in the opportunity to open myself to other friends and family around me, and to spend money and energy helping some friends who are in need and being with older friends and family while they're still healthy. I'm sure that kids have a special tap into one's love, but for me I'm enjoying consciously stepping beyond that instinctive focus. So I guess it's that you give of yourself and receive the joy of that giving, not just that you do the giving to your children.

Posted by: Hana1 | August 5, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

If your goal in life is to please every whim of your own as soon as the whim appears, then children will be a terrible burden.

Children (I have three) are certainly work. They definitely cut into one's "me time."

Having children will incite rage, fears, terrors, worries that you cannot even imagine right now. You'll view every catastrophe through the prism of parenthood, which magnifies all disaster exponentially. You'll become anxious knowing that at some point they'll read Anne Frank's diary and ask you how such a girl could be exterminated like that. And you'll see them struggle to understand how people can commit such unspeakable crimes against other people.

You'll watch Teletubbies and wonder how much acid the creators did in college. Or watch the Wiggles and marvel at the brilliant marketing the four singing men in primary colors have displayed to make them the richest entertainers in Australia - if not the world....

Then there's the flip side.

You'll hold your baby for the first time and feel such an abundance of love that you'll wonder what took you so long to become a parent.

You'll let go of the bike one day and watch your beautiful child wobble away from dependence toward freedom.

You will watch Elf with an eight-yr-old boy and realize you've never laughed so much in your life. Ever.

You'll give and receive so much love that it's scary and wonderful all at once.

Posted by: anne3 | August 5, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I just have one kiddo, and I agree with anne3 on both the anxieties/terrors and the wonderful flip side. While they are kids (and mine still is), it's different from anything else. And if you are, like me, prone to tearing up about things, keep some kleenex around.

Posted by: bdballard | August 5, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Hana1 - I agree that it's about opening yourself up to others that is satisfying, not that it would have to be kids. It's a good thing to open the discussion up for more folks to participate, too.

My wife and I lost our first child, and a friend (who is also a parent) said to us that being a parent makes you a hostage to fate, and that he was sorry that we ended up having to learn that in such a difficult way so quickly. It builds on simmonslcsw's comment, but there's a bit too much anxiety and worry built in to being a parent for it to be pure happiness.

On the whole, though, I still say that it's worth it - our second son is due on November 30, and even though we are more aware than most of how fragile life is, we wanted to keep open to the world. This was the way we wanted to try, for now.

On a totally different note, jkaren: do you happen to be jacqueline from the old blog?

Posted by: rpy1 | August 5, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

This is exactly right. The most satisfying accomplishment is the one you can achieve only by working your butt off and stretching yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of. Getting there is nowhere near "happy" or "fun"; but the end is eminently satisfying.

Having kids takes this to the extreme -- the path is even longer, sometimes with even less positive feedback along the way, but the end result of all of those efforts is exponentially more satisfying. I have a great, challenging job, doing things that I consider important. But in the end, I'm never going to cure cancer, or write the Great American Novel, or do other Important things that will measurably improve people's lives. And yet, if I'm lucky and work really hard, I may be able to help produce a healthy, happy, productive, well-adjusted human being. And that rocks.

Posted by: laura33 | August 5, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Just please remember that once you have kids, it's no longer about you. Absorb that statement, repeat it over and over again to yourself, and then get over your bad self. Children are not a marital aid, a relationship accessory, a 'phase of my life' thing, or a tool to make up for your or your parent's shortcomings.

On the other hand, the other day, I had my laptop open on my patio doing work, drinking beer I had made, with my children having a riotous time about 15 feet away. I don't remember being this happy in undergrad or grad school, and yes you can have it all.

Posted by: Jaycal | August 5, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Please excuse the cliche, but that was really moving. As a soon-to-be parent, I'm wondering if any of you worry about our polity and what we're providing to our kids, or if it's just the over-politicized Washington environment that's getting to me? To me, talking about future generations has always sounded like a talking point for politicians, but now I'm actually terrified about raising kids in a country with state capture from big business and where we have so much economic uncertainty.

Posted by: GrandArch | August 5, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I don't have kids but I was living with my sister when she had both her girls. One is eight now and the other 15. I would say that children don't start to improve actual happiness at first - they are a lot of work. But as they get older and become their own little people, that swiftly changes. Being able to have a conversation with them, reason with them, get to know who they are becoming and yes, having a little more time to yourself, GREATLY improves the happiness/work ratio. I think this starts to happen around 8-9 depending on the kid.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | August 5, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

hana1


thank you for writing that.

my oldest son and his wife made a conscious and beautiful decision to adopt two children, rather than to have their own.
in the los angles foster care system, there are 28,000 pairs of siblings, hoping and waiting to find permanent families.
for these two tiny children, coming to be with my son and his wonderful wife, even though the littlest was just three at the time, and their journey had already been very, very long.
now, they are in a place of unconditional love, protection and acceptance.
you are right, hana.
raising and caring for children is not just about a biological connection.
my son and daughter-in-law could not love their two children any more than they do. when my son looks at them, there are stars in his eyes!!!!!
how these two little children were scooped up and delivered to this place of love, is nothing short of a miracle.
it takes a village to raise a child. to help every human being.
all of us can choose any path of love.
everything on the earth needs love and care.
you can tend a chiild, care for animals, raise a garden, work with the sick, teach someone how to read.
......is it always happy?
of course not.
is it how we give the best part of ourselves to try and make the world a better place?
of course.

it reminds me of the beautiful quote from saint francis of assisi.
"preach the gospel. use words if necessary."
we all have our own journeys.
the place to change the world is fourteen feet around you:-)

we all have our special work on the journey.


Posted by: jkaren | August 5, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

To Hana 1 - we are today having lunch with a very dear friend who is, like you, involuntarily childless - she is in her 60s now and you should see the size of her family! It's HUGE.

When faced with something she did not choose, she then made the choice to open herself up to whatever came.

My children adore her - she's played a big role in my life. Her involuntary parentless status gave her space to open up in ways that touch so many people... Life takes us to unexpected places all the time.

Posted by: anne3 | August 5, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Two points:

1) It's not a coincidence that items which are rated as "worthwhile" are also the items which are rated to make people less happy. It is the notion of "worthwhile"-ness that makes people continue to select these activities despite the fact that they are often (though we may not want to acknowledge this about our children) a source of stress or displeasure.

2) I do believe that children, *on average*, don't really increase the happiness of their parents. But I don't believe that this means that *no* parents are made happier by their children. Rather, there's probably a lot of variability, depending on your level of patience, the amount of planning you did before having children, your skill at child-rearing, the resources at your disposal to help (grandparents, daycare, etc.), and, of course, depending heavily on your children themselves.

Posted by: davestickler | August 5, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

You have to remember that statistics are always skewed to the thoughts of the person conducting it. Additionally, there are many factors that come to play, so I am not sure anyone can ever statistically say if children make you happier or not.

Posted by: spolastre | August 5, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

When driving with a then-girlfriend, I asked what her father did for a living. She pointed to an advertising billboard and answered the question by saying "That's my dad, in his underwear" and hanging her head (almost in shame) at her father's publicity. Now, every time I see a reprint of that particular advertisement I think "Oh, there's (name's) dad. I wonder how she's doing?", remembering the child more than the parent.

It sounds odd, but for me, the hope in parenting is the hope of being suitably forgotten: I truly favor the success of those I attempt to nurture.

That same hope of being forgotten leads me to closely scrutinize legislation which might linger as a burden to those who can now neither vote nor pay: "Then 19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt."

"Turn this subject in your mind, my dear Sir, and particularly as to the power of contracting debts; and develope it with that perspicuity and cogent logic so peculiarly yours. Your station in the councils of our country gives you an opportunity of producing it to public consideration, of forcing it into discussion." [T. Jefferson to J. Madison, 1789-09-06]

Posted by: rmgregory | August 5, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Oh, something else to keep in mind... all those 'common wisdom' things about pregnancy and parenting are mostly full of s*$t or you were never told about! For example:
-More than 1/3 of conceptions result in miscarriages
-'Morning Sickness' happens all day long when present.
-Your marriage doesn't go in the toilet because of a new child per-se... it's just what happens to your attitude and sex drive after 8-12 weeks of sleep deprivation.
-When you hit that point mentioned above, mild doses of Prozac are the best marital aide and probably make you a better parent
-The 'Terrible Twos' are a result of your child growning cognitively, which doesn't stop when they reach their third birthday.

No, none of this sounds 'fun' or a way to make you personally happy. After going through all this, though, you'll never remember why 8 hours of solid sleep didn't bring you estatic happiness before : )

Posted by: Jaycal | August 5, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

"I plan to tell that to them, and often."

Hehehe! But seriously, I can only hope your attitude will change once you have some. The poor kids shouldn't get their self conciousness ruined by constant reminders that they're only of secondary importance for their dad.

Posted by: Gray62 | August 5, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

According to my own parents, much of this finding can be explained by the fact that children become teenagers.

Posted by: DCeconomist | August 5, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Watch out.

If you tell them blogging is more fun than kids expect to read that blogging us much more fun than parents on their blogs before they reach age 6.

Each generation gets web savvy younger and uhm your childred are likely to be precocious relative to their peers.

Posted by: rjw88 | August 5, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I think it is much better just to get a dog. After all, a kid could turn out to be a serial killer or something...you have zero control over them. Or, they could be born with no head...anything could happen.

I haven't had kids, but I believe this research is right. Of course people love their kids, but love is not happiness. It is just worry etc...

Posted by: evangeline135 | August 5, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

This post and the comments reinforce that 3,000 years of Western thinking about happiness and the good life have gone down the drain.

It used to be a core thread in Western thinking that pleasure is not the same as satisfaction in a life well-lived, and a great deal of effort was spent on spelling out what the latter looked like. For the Greeks, the key concept was "eudaimonia."

Ezra, I think you are ready to read Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Or, if you did manage to read them and forget the contents, lucky you to discover them all over again!

Not that you will, of course, agree with everything in them, but there is still an enormous amount of value to take away from those works.

Posted by: jdhalv | August 5, 2009 10:04 PM | Report abuse

anne3, that was beautiful.

Posted by: itch | August 5, 2009 10:43 PM | Report abuse

My crush on you grows and grows, Ezra!

Whoever said parenting is like being pecked to death by ducks was really on to something. But they are really cute ducks.

Hana and Anne, loved your comments. Hana, wishing you lots of children and family in your life, however they come to you. I have both bio and adopted kids, so I know it has nothing to do with shared DNA.

Therese, mother of 4 and very happy (even if it doesn't always look that way)

Posted by: tpuppie | August 5, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Like Hana, my husband and I are involuntarily childless. It's not easy accepting that what comes so naturally to others has been denied to us -- especially in a culture that assumes with enough time, money and trips to the fertility clinics that children will inevitably result. It's only after confronting the anger and grief and mourning our losses that I'm now able to find happiness as an doting and devoted aunt, and my relationship with my husband is deeper than I ever imagined. My journey led me to write the book Silent Sorority. Through it all I've come to learn that happiness comes in opening your heart to others and appreciating all that you have available to you...

Posted by: ptsigdinos | August 12, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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