What would it mean for a couple to decide that they should have a child? It probably means that they think that their own well-being will tend to increase for having brought another person into the world; it should also mean that they expect their child to have a life that is, on balance, worth living. If they didn’t expect these things, it’s hard to see why they would want to have a child in the first place.
However, most of the research done on happiness suggests that people actually become less happy when they have children and do not begin to approach their prior level of happiness until their children leave home.
– Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Happiness (London: Black Swan, 2012, p.239)
My previous post aired my personal reservations about becoming a father and the possible adverse effects such a course of action would have on my own life. When I first read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape at the end of last year, I read the above passage with much delight as the scientific analysis appeared to be very much on my side: parents have children because of their perception of the enjoyment and satisfaction they will of being parents. However, the studies indicate that they become significantly less happy after their children are born and only re-attain their previous levels of happiness when their children leave home!
In the first of his two wonderful anti-self-help life guides, Help! How To Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done, The Guardian’s psychological columnist, Oliver Burkeman, states:
When you don’t have children – as I don’t, thus far – one entertaining thing to do with friends who do is as follows. Wait until they’re gazing, lovestruck, into the eyes of their newborn baby, tucking their toddler into bed, or proudly watching their 21-year-old graduate. Then creep up behind them, slap down a copy of the Journal of Marriage and Family, volume 65, number 3 and triumphantly declare: ‘Ha! You may think parenthood has changed your life for the better, but, in fact, the statistical analyses contained herein, along with numerous other studies, demonstrate conclusively that having children makes people, on average, slightly less happy than before!’ Then walk away cackling. They may never speak to you again, but that won’t matter: you will have won the argument, using Science. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011, pp. 42 – 43)
These findings clearly fly in the face of what parents say to you in everyday conversation: that having a child was the best thing that could have happened to them and it will be the best thing that will happen to you. It is tempting to write-off the studies’ methodology as flawed. However, as Burkeman states this is no reason to think that this attitude would skew the results against the supposed joys of parenthood: “If anything, the taboo against admitting to regretting having kids may put things the other way.”
Nattavudh Powdthavee’s overview of the research published in The Psychologist explains the discrepancy with the notorious “focusing illusion”: contemplating any major alteration in our circumstances, we overate the effect it will have. We imagine living idyllically after making millions when in fact sudden wealth leaves most people largely emotionally unchanged:
According to Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, part of the problem with stated preferences, or any judgement requiring the comparison of two or more alternatives, is that they suffer from inherent focusing illusion, best captured in the maxim ‘Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’.
Daniel Gilbert states that the “meme” of having children axiomatically making us happy is a “super-replicator”: the advancement of human civilisation depends on it and those who disagree tend not to have children so their views do not percolate down the generations
Like the Jenny McCarthy-ites who claim that the MMR vaccine leads to autism based on nothing more than personal perception and social interaction, the idea that having children will lead to personal happiness is an illusion which has been burst by the force of science.
In an excellent summary of the scientific research, Jennifer Senior writing in The New York Magazine perfectly encapsulates the “rose tinted spectacles” factor:
About twenty years ago, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, made a striking contribution to the field of psychology, showing that people are far more apt to regret things they haven’t done than things they have. In one instance, he followed up on the men and women from the Terman study, the famous collection of high-IQ students from California who were singled out in 1921 for a life of greatness. Not one told him of regretting having children, but ten told him they regretted not having a family.
“I think this boils down to a philosophical question, rather than a psychological one,” says Gilovich. “Should you value moment-to-moment happiness more than retrospective evaluations of your life?” He says he has no answer for this, but the example he offers suggests a bias. He recalls watching TV with his children at three in the morning when they were sick. “I wouldn’t have said it was too fun at the time,” he says. “But now I look back on it and say, ‘Ah, remember the time we used to wake up and watch cartoons?’ ” The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight.
It’s a lovely magic trick of the memory, this gilding of hard times. Perhaps it’s just the necessary alchemy we need to keep the species going. But for parents, this sleight of the mind and spell on the heart is the very definition of enchantment.
Nevertheless, parents are not immunised from these stress factors while it’s all going on. A recent study by the relationship charity OnePlusOne (download PDF) examined the effects that the “Baby Quake” has on new parents. The report included a survey of 1,403 parents, which revealed that ‘lack of sleep’ is the biggest single cause of relationship strain for couples who have just had a baby. The research also revealed that two-fifths (42%) of parents who are no longer with the parent of their first child separated during pregnancy or before the child reached three-years-old.
So what does a 31 year old Henry Higgins take from these astonishing findings? I have found no better guidance than an astonishing frank piece of relationship advice, “relationship coach” David Wygant phrases the dilemma in no uncertain terms and his advice is worth quoting at length:
Do you understand the picture I’m painting for you? You’re with a woman who so desires to have children, but you see children as parasites. You think kids are nuisances. You just don’t see yourself as a father, but since she came along, you’ve asked yourself every day, “Can I do it? Do I really want kids? If I don’t want kids, can I keep dating her anyway?”
If everything I’ve just said resonates with you, then you are going to be miserable with children. You’ll basically give yourself a prison sentence for the rest of your life. You’ll give up the great car and drive a minivan instead. Your girlfriend, who will now become your wife, will no longer make you feel desired. You liked being the apple of her eye, but you’ll come second to the children. It’s everything you don’t want.
The bottom line is that she wants children and you don’t. So how do you compromise? How do you keep her and still be fair to both of you? Here’s the answer: You don’t compromise. You don’t stay with her. Unless you can see yourself changing diapers or as the guy on the airplane, apologising for your baby’s incessant crying, you’re not cut out for having kids [My emphasis].
If you don’t want children, you can’t stay with her. You have no choice but to let her go. You have to be completely honest with her and let her find somebody who shares her vision of having a family. You understand that her vision is beautiful – it’s what she wants out of life — but you don’t want the same thing for your life. So there’s no way in the world you can stay together. Because if you end up getting her pregnant and having a child with her, it’s a child you never wanted, and that’s not fair to the child, and it’s not fair to either of you. You’re not going to want to be there as a father when your child needs you. Either your life will be miserable, or she’ll end up a single mum, but the bottom line is that you don’t have any right to remain with her. You need to set her free and allow her to live her life as she envisions it.
Well, I suppose then the next time I enter a lucid phase in my attitude to women in general and romantic relations with them in particular, I will tick the box on eHarmony or Matchdotcom that indicates in so uncertain terms that I am only interested in the first stage of procreation, not the last…