Do your children make you happy? Some research says NO. I say YES.

My earth-shattering happiness formula is: to be happy, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

One of the puzzles that led me to devise this formula is the question: Do children make you happy? (For people who want children, I mean; some people are quite happy not having children.)

In Stumbling on Happiness, prominent psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that children don’t, in fact, make their parents happy.

He points to studies that show that marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of the first child and increases after the last child has left home, and to research that shows that a group of women found childcare only slightly more pleasant than housework.

So why do people think children bring happiness? Because, Gilbert argues, without the successful transmission of that inaccurate belief, society would crash—no one would have kids. Also, he says, when people think about having kids, they imagine the fun and success, but not the inconvenience and anxiety.

I thought a lot about Gilbert’s argument and the well-known studies he references. I certainly know from my own experience that the Big Man and I bicker much more now that we have kids, we have fewer fun adventures, and we have less time for each other. And having children is a source of worry, aggravation, expense, and inconvenience, not to mention all the colds I pick up and the chaos of toys that drives me crazy.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t accept the argument that children don’t bring happiness. Because they do! Not always in a moment-to-moment way, perhaps, but in some deeper way…

I struggled to figure out how to account for this paradox in my formula, and that’s how I came up with feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

I imagine that if I didn’t have children, day to day, I might very well have MORE feeling good and LESS feeling bad — more time reading in bed, less time replacing the caps on magic markers. Which means I’d be happier, right?

Wrong. Children are essential to my feeling right. Being a parent, holding your baby in your arms, taking your place in the circle of life…it’s corny but it’s true. Most people just wouldn’t feel right if they didn’t have kids. (Again, I recognize that some people don’t want kids; I’m not tackling the issue of their happiness here.)

Feeling right is an essential component of happiness. I don’t think that parents-to-be fool themselves that parenthood is all fun. They might not exactly anticipate what’s going to hit them with that first baby, but they know it’s not all playgrounds and valedictorian addresses.

There are times when feeling right means feeling bad. Consider a commute. Studies show (surprise!) that a bad commute is a real downer, and one to which we never adapt. But you might choose to have a bad commute in order to live in a neighborhood with good schools. Once your kids are in the good school, you’ll adapt to that circumstance, and it won’t be a source of feeling good, and the commute will make you feel bad every day. But it’s worth it, because you feel right about your trade-off.

Even though they may means less feeling good, and more feeling bad, I think children contribute mightily to happiness.

Also, they contribute to the atmosphere of growth that is important to happiness (and part of my formula). Seeing them learn, change, and grow boosts happiness.

I’ve found an intriguing new blog, Trizoko. It’s about how to be more effective at work — but being more effective at work is often the same thing as being more effective in life. An unusual “voice” if I may use a term that I usually try to avoid.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sharyn

    Children are a form of immortality – they are a concrete way that we know a part of us lives on, that we made a mark in the world, that we were here. That brings a sense of satisfaction on a level little else can. Also, my Dad told me before my first child was born (assuming you are a reasonably good/responsible parent) that “nothing will knock the selfishness out of you like having children”. I’ve believe that true and lasting safisfaction, and growth, increase as selfishness decreases.
    It’s fine not to have children, and Lord knows it’s got to be one of the hardest, most demanding, things a person can do, but the biggest challanges can bring the biggest rewards, over time. It’s a difference between happiness right this minute and a longer-term, “big picture” happiness. I think that when you have a child (by choice) it’s a real form of optomism.

  • I think I smile a lot more when there are kids around. My little guy makes me grin all the time!

  • I believe that the more “layers” we successfully add to our lives the richer our life experience is. I’m learning this more and more as I move along. There’s just something about a sandwich with all the fixings that tastes better than the dull piece of bread with a single piece of baloney. Even if it gives you indigestion. k

  • Ok, I AM prone to the same “delusion” you are. (And then my daughter breaks my stereo, and I get a glimpse of all the tricks my genes are playing on me…)
    I don’t know that you should say that he “argues” that children make people less happy – he *refers* to four longitudinal studies: if the studies are wrong, it must be because people aren’t reporting their own “subjective well-being correctly.”
    However look closely at the chart (on pg. 221 of Gilbert’s book): the low point in each study is during the adolescence period, which is ALSO likely to be during the MID-LIFE crisis period for the adult: so this might be a way out that its the children causing unhappiness, unless its the kids who are responsible for the mid-life crisis. (I just thought of this and so don’t know whether these studies controlled for things like mid-life crises…)

  • It’s absolutely true that children knock the selfishness out of you — maybe that’s part of the “atmosphere of growth” they bring. We parents are growing, too, in selflessness, patience, and humor (on the good days).
    Studies bear out the point about “layers” being a good thing. Research shows that the more identities a person has–banker/mother/yoga practitioner/PTA member/etc–the more stable the sense of self.
    FASCINATING point about the correlation between kids’ ages and the midlife crisis. So maybe that’s what’s going on, not related to the kids. Also, I’ve seen work suggesting that the fact that the oldest child is turning 14 or so is itself a precipitating factor of MLC. But I want to look into this further… Your point is good reminder that correlation is not causation (necessarily). A place where this comes up in happiness is in the studies show that even while the US has become a richer country over the last 40 years, people aren’t getting happier. But growth in wealth isn’t the only thing happened during the last 40 years. People have fewer intimate friends, which very much affects happiness. Also, that growth of wealth had much to do with the many more women entering the work force, which brings happiness but also a lot of stress to households.

  • thodarumm

    My children are an absolute joy to me. I cannot imagine a life without my children. Sure, I yell at them and get exasperated, but good God, to me they are pure joy! Here are some of my posts at other forums (there are few more, but I will spare you folks :))
    I almost have to make a conscious effort to steer away from my children when I do my online gratitude entry and I fail often. I do feel like I am evolving as a better person becuase I am in awe of the role I have as a mother. It is a privilege and an awesome responsibility.

  • I was listening to a tape talking about the importance of playfulness in adults.
    My 6 year old daughter said it’s easy to be playful.
    I said “Really, how do you do it?”
    She said “I look at my toys and I’m playful.”
    She isn’t the source of my happiness, God is, but she is pure love and joy and it’s hard not to be happy around her.

  • cw

    To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, parenthood “is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about…”
    But I can’t imagine being happy without it.

  • ICAM…I’ve had a rough transition into motherhood; I mourned HARD for all of the free time and adventures that are gone for the moment. But, I simply cannot imagine life without my daughter anymore. She brings me a deep joy and satisfaction that is almost difficult to put into words. For some reason, having her has freed to really go after my dreams, if only so that I can be a good role model.

  • It’s not the children who make parents unhappy. It’s the other parent, and your unmet expectations of parenthood.

  • Wayne Keyser

    “In a deeper way”, exactly.
    “marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of the first child and increases after the last child has left home”
    Raising our children has been my life’s biggest challenge. As such (and also because the children’s needs take priority over my/our own) certainly the marriage, as we had known it, takes second place and it’s never again what it used to be. But instead of being a couple of self-involved young lovebirds like we were, we are now a team working together to meet a challenge. That means more conflicts, new demands for interpersonal understanding, and new demands to “stretch” to meet the next challenge. We wear with pride the bruises we’ve collected along the way (and we have a few “dueling scars” as well, but we’ve survived and overcome most of the conflicts we encountered along the way.)
    “without the successful transmission of that inaccurate belief, society would crash—no one would have kids.”
    Is he entirely ignorant of the rewards that accrue? Between the simple existential pride that comes from meeting a challenge, to the indescribable joy of having our two young treasures (“look how good we did!”) and of course the thought that we have launched into the world two magnificent individuals who will carry our best thoughts, principles and ideas into the future.
    I have already skethched out the key sentence I’ll use at both of my kids’ weddings, when I’m asked to speak: “Raising this young man has been taxing, worrisome, irritating, challenging, expensive … and it’s all over much too soon.”

  • Jaimie

    Not a parent yet myself, so cannot comment on whether having children brings happiness. Just wanted to reinforce to you, Gretchen, that it is lovely to receive updates and photos of children. I am always happy to get emailed photos of my nieces and nephews, especially just ordinary ones of their days.
    In some weird way I look forward to the level of unselfishness parenthood brings. I’m sure it will be painful at the time, but I think it will precipitate growth in a way that no other experience can.

  • My son brings me joy.

  • ACS

    Surveys of subjective well-being ask people to rate their happiness on a scale. Thus happiness is usually measured only by the first two elements in Ms. Rubin’s formula–“feeling good” and “feeling bad”– as ongoing states of general well-being. Ms. Rubin, however, treats the two as transient emotions and suggests that there is a third component—“feeling right”—which influences people’s happiness. As an example she states, “You might choose to have a bad commute in order to live in a neighborhood with good schools […] but it’s worth it, because you feel right about your trade-off.” Feeling right seems to improve the parent’s well-being. But if one analyzes the parent’s behavior using utility theory, the effect of “feeling right” on happiness is no longer a unique force; instead it is included in the effect of “feeling good” about the decision. When the parent must choose between the good school and the good commute, he evaluates, though perhaps unconsciously, the amount of satisfaction he will derive from each option. His decision implies that the chosen option offers more utility or happiness. So Ms. Rubin’s conclusions differ from those of earlier studies only because she uses different definitions of “feeling good” and “feeling bad.”

  • Maybe for YOU, children equate happiness. I don’t believe it should be a blanket statement, however.
    Personally I am child-free by choice and have never wanted children…even when birth control failed and I wound up with an unwanted pregnancy.
    I think what brings people happiness is what is important to them. If having kids is important to you, then it stands to reason that having kids may make you happy.
    On the other hand, I treasure the fact that I have no children in my life and get to experience those numerous benefits on a daily basis.
    My parents, teachers, society drummed into me from an early age that I would have kids because that is what is ‘expected’ of you. I’m glad I stuck to my guns and said no to breeding. I cannot imagine being any happier than I am now.

  • Tera

    My husband and I can’t have children and have been trying for the past 6 years. I can tell you that wanting something you can’t have is a bummer and does affect your level of happiness in a negative way. However, we are positive, active people and we try to stay focused on those things in our lives that do make us happy that we couldn’t necessarily do with children. That helps us a little bit…plus being around other people with children who seem to not be so happy. Because we have had the choice to not have children without feeling guilty for it since it was not in our control and ultimately wanted children (other people usually make you feel bad if you don’t want children by choice), we are in a unique position. We can see how happy we are without children although we do not know if we would be happier if we had children. Beyond that, I think how happy you may or may not be with regards to having children could depend on which stage in life you are in when you are asked this question, what kind of day you are having, how much money you have, what kind of job you have, how supportive your husband is, what kind of personality you have, how full and satisfying you perceived your life was before children and how much having children changed the quality of your life, as you perceive “quality.” The question “Do children make you happier” is a complex question and the answer relies on many factors. I don’t believe there can be a one-size-fits-all answer for this question.
    Regarding whether the answers people give are valid or not, I don’t think people who have children can really comprehend the sadness they might feel if they didn’t have children. Infertile couples are often depressed and full of anxiety themselves. Since 85% of the population has children, infertile couples are an isolated population that have to learn to form relationships with others based on other common interests rather than children. Since parents usually don’t have a lot of free time, it can be just as hard to find other people to do things with and feel almost as lonely as when you were single–can you remember that feeling once you were over 27 and being single wasn’t any fun anymore because most of your friends were married? Well, it’s similar to that when you are married and after 5 years, you still don’t have children. My husband and I are now married 10 years. We know what we are talking about.
    It takes a lot of effort to build a community of friends in our society when you don’t have children. I also think they should change the term from happiness to satisfaction. Are you more satisfied in your life because of having children? I would say most people would answer yes to this. You have to consider your parents and siblings as well. If your siblings are having children and you’re the only one in your family who doesn’t, this can make you feel left out, too, and your parents will never have the same relationship with you as they do with your siblings. You also do not receive gifts as often or help from other people in your life. Even though the gifts are going to your children, people only give your children gifts because they know, respect or love you. So, in a way, you are receiving a gift and recognition, too. Of course, if people don’t like your child, that can cause a lot of negative impact as well. I think that there’s so much to this question, as I said before. They’ve even done studies that say that parents love children who are better looking than those who are not ( they defined beauty as having a more symmetrical face). So add to the list of influencing factors how good-looking you think your child is and how talented you think it is and whether you actually like their personality. So many unknowns, but I still believe that most people are more satisfied in their lives because of having children–if not when they’re raising them, then at least later when they are retired.

  • Jhen

    I tend to think he’s right. Children can be an immense source of happiness, but no, they aren’t the key to it, and they absolutely can make you miserable.

  • I think people have a hard time recognizing the difference between pleasure and happiness.
    Having kids has certainly curttailed some of the pleasures I use to enjoy, but have built my happiness exponentially.
    I have lost the pleasure I once had of sleeping late – but having energetic, fun-loving people that are ready to do something with me in the morning is more than a fair tradeoff.
    I have lost the pleasure of blowing all my finances on purchases for myself, but experience much more happiness in the joy of providing for others.
    I have lost the pleasure of having my evenings to myself to read, exercise, watch tv, etc., but am much more happy in that I am contributing to the lives of people who mean a lot to me.

  • I am also child-free by choice, however, many of our friends have young children and there are many things about children that do make me happy. For example, the fact that they go home to their own beds and I to mine. 🙂
    Also, I do love the “kid logic” of a 3 or 4 year old, and the adorable, hilarious things that come out of their mouths. I love their velvety soft skin and the fact that a hug from a kid I adore makes my heart almost explode. I simultaneously love and hate the fact that I tear up when I put my nephew to bed because I just love him so much.
    Yes, there are many things that I love about kids, and I accept there are things I’ll never know or experience as a result of opting out of parenthood. But that’s my choice and one I’m very happy with.
    Even though I’ll never fully know what actual parenthood is like, being involved in the lives of others’ kids allows me to impact them in a positive way and to experience the joy of having them around, even though I’ve chosen not to be a parent myself.

  • James

    I wonder how big of a factor all sorts of outer variables might have with regards to how happy a parent is compared to *if* they weren’t a parent or when they weren’t a parent. Like for instance, in the USA it seems like a rat race has taken over our culture. I can’t imagine a parent being happier with a child if they’re overworked, over stressed, in financial difficulty, etc etc.. Now I wonder how having children affects happiness of those that aren’t overburdened with other obligations/duties/hobbies/work in life. Like for stay at home moms, in a family that is financially secure – how happy are they now that they have a child(s)? Me personally, I’m young and been wondering how having a child would affect my happiness. I don’t work much, am financially secure, and disabled. The nature of my medical condition makes it so I’d probably be far more productive being something like a stay at home dad compared to how productive I can be in the work force.

  • Denise

    I just want to make a couple of observations here.
    Im a childless-by-choice (childfree) woman and Ive noticed that people who are quickest to point out that I am missing out on something “big” when it comes to the children issue are people who either know they want to be parents or parents of children themselves.
    Often these people think they know what it feels like not to want to have children — they simply equate it to what it was like when they were single. However, being single with the desire of one day having a child is VERY different from the perspective of another single person who has never had the desire to have children. There is a difference. Single people who want children will, throughout their lives, base their life choices on this desire while those who don’t have this desire, won’t. Just wanted to clarify that.
    The parents of children who have raised their kids to adulthood, however (Ive noticed), tend to be more quiet and more accepting of my choice. I often wonder if this is linked to the fact that it must be easier to love a young human being that is 1000% dependant on you as opposed to when they are older and more independent. And we all know its inevitable that a child’s dependency for his/her parent will plummet when he/she grows up to be a teenager, then a young adult, then a full-blown adult.
    “Love changes as children grow up,” they say, but what if it also shrinks? What if a lot of the love parents profess to have for their children is exponentially linked to how dependent they are on you?
    “What happens when your children become adults themselves?” is not a question I think many people who want to or become parents really think about and all the difficulties that may result when that happens. The little angel sleeping in your bed at 5 years of age might be the son who never calls you when he’s 45, how would that make you feel? of course, this is a bad-case scenario. Im sure there a plenty of good case scenarios – im just making an observation here.
    I truly think few people take the long-view perspective of raising a child to adulthood into account and generally stick to the short-term aspects of raising a child – all the cute, cuddly ones – when they say they want to have children.
    I don’t know. I think that parents that have lived through the whole process of raising a child are on a much higher wisdom level than those of parents with children only. Theyre often a lot more considerate of my choice for one thing and I think that says a lot.

    • lea

      Hi Denise,
      the love for children maybe changes, but does not shrink. If it is that way, it is not love, just dependency, addiction. And those things come with expectations, and demands. And certainly, where is the case of expectations, it is all related back to selfishness, because the important part is what is in it for you, not the child you are giving to.

      Loving means acceptance with everything: the good and the bad. What seems to you consideration might be just their way of being accepting for your choice.

  • davoid

    Ask the Big Man if he feels that he’s happier overall or less happy overall now that you’ve got kids. Ask him to be honest and tell him it’s OK if he’s less happy, even if you think it’s very bad that he’s less happy.

  • Lev

    Well, this seems to be a sticky situation, depending on the angle from which one approaches.
    Let’s say it starts with an Idealist versus a Realist.
    Narrow it down.
    Idealist/Realist < Religious/Scientific < Spiritual/Philosophical. There, a new partnership of angles, just like that. Now then, let's begin. From a spiritual/philosophical angle, I think it goes something like this: Do what you want, but only because you admit you want it. Desire is selfish, despite how you spin it. Do you want children? It's clear that 'need' isn't an issue. You don't 'need' children to be happy. Happiness exists in and of itself, but only if allowed. You cannot gain happiness, it cannot be bought, it cannot be earned, it cannot be bribed nor strived for to attain it. How then, despite all the efforts in and of man does one become happy? By being so, period. Still, I could speak about it, teach by example, set up a soapbox and preach about it, and nothing would happen. I cannot make you happy. It is only by your own release that it can be so. What roots you to your spot? What holds you from letting go? Fear? Regrets? Secrets? Fear is irrational. Concern, however, is quite fitting. Regrets are irrational. The past is to be learned from, not to be lived repeatedly. Secrets? Well, that comes back to fear and regret, doesn't it? Choose to let it all go, and it will be gone. It's not a matter of 'trying'. It's a matter of 'doing'. Make a singular, conscious decision. That's it, that's all. Sound too easy? "Oh goodness, the fleeting, hidden, seemingly illusory thing called happiness! It cannot be so easy as to just be!" Am I getting warm? There's that old saying about the best things in life, how they are free. Not quite right. They are freedom. Freedom is release and releasing. Release your demons and they release you in turn. Let it go, take a breath, live. Repeat. That's it. Don't react, act. If you want children, do it to do it, not for some ulterior motive. Don't expect nor seek happiness in it. If you are unhappy before, you will be unhappy after. Seeking temporary solutions to a problem that has been needlessly overcomplicated by the programming that the world has to offer, always folly. There is no solution, no big secret, no 'way to happiness'. BE, that's it. Be. ~Lev

  • C

    I have not found, and I have not observed among my (many) friends with kids, that becoming a parent has made me happier. It feels like a betrayal to say that, but it isn’t … I love my daughter because of who she is, not because she’s some kind of happiness dispenser.

  • I don’t have kids. So I’m a little biased with this article. What I can say makes me happy is how to make big bucks. I love money! I can’t be the only one.

    • DCHeatFan

      I’m with you on the money aspect although I’m more interested in retiring early. Having kids will pretty much doom me to a life in the office. I’d much rather be relaxing at home with my dog or out playing golf.

  • DCHeatFan

    My wife and I have recently decided to not have children. I can’t explain how happy this makes me. I’m sure if I had children I would love them and find happiness in other ways but the constant day-to-day responsibility is not something I am interested in. I worry enough as is about the future, I can’t imagine how much I would worry with children. I’ve never really liked children to begin with, I am more of an animal person. I love my dog like he’s my kid. Now I am looking at possible early retirement and a life of leisure. To me getting out of the daily grind of work is the one thing that will bring me the most happiness. Now I just need to take some golf lessons.

  • LizT

    I don’t feel right going to the supermarket without lipstick, but I understand that this socially constructed and that it is ultimately stupid to take action on it.