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Does Having Children Make You Happier?

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 19, 2013 2:55 pm

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's been a debate raging in academic circles for years. Does having children really make one happier? Most parents say their kids absolutely make them happy, but some researchers have come to question that.

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam sat down with MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep to take on this question.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So scientists are studying what affect kids have on their parents' happiness. Are there any results?

VEDANTAM: Yes. I mean, so most laypeople assume that kids make them happy and...

INSKEEP: Sure.

VEDANTAM: ...that's why people have kids. But researchers have said, hang on a second. If parents are so happy, how come they complain all the time? How come they're so stressed out all the time? And back in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman did the study involving 900 working women in Texas. He asked people to reconstruct their activities from the previous day and rate how happy they were doing each activity.

One of the questions he asked was: How happy are you when you're taking care of your kids? I spoke with Sonja Lyubomirsky, she's at the University of California at Riverside, and she told me that 2004 study and found that parents really weren't very happy.

SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY: When they sort of ranked the different activities on happiness, they found that taking care of children was read it, you know, fairly low. It was rated close to sort of vacuuming and, you know, sort of showing that, oh, look, you know, it means that parents are not happy.

VEDANTAM: The takeaway from the media was that this means parenting makes people unhappy. But Lyubomirsky said, hang on, something doesn't add up. And she's a psychologist who studies happiness. In fact, she has a new book out called "The Myths of Happiness."

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

VEDANTAM: And she often finds that things that people think they can happy actually don't. So she said when I looked at the 2004 study, people reported that they were happiest when they were having sex. But there was a catch.

LYUBOMIRSKY: People didn't report having sex very often. So if you're really, really happy when you have sex but you don't have it that often, it's actually not going to affect your happiness that much overall.

VEDANTAM: And she just finished a series of studies looking at this parenting and happiness question. She looks at a more representative sample of people - both men and women - and she finds that actually parents are slightly happier than non-parents. And not just when they're at work and away from their kids, but actually when they're with their kids and looking after their kids. She also finds a very interesting gender difference. Parenting appears to make men happier than it does women.

INSKEEP: This is part of what you're telling me, is it not, Shankar, that when you are doing some menial task, it might get very dull and repetitive - you have to do the laundry then you have to do the laundry again, you have to do the laundry again - you're going to be unhappy with a lot of specific tasks. But the broader picture may cause you to feel a different way, and if you're able to focus on the broader picture.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. I think, Steve, you've missed your calling as a researcher because I think this is what Lyubomirsky has looked at. She says there's a difference between happiness measured on a moment-to-moment level and happiness measured at a larger level. Parents report significantly more meaning in their lives than non-parents, even though on a day-to-day basis parenting may be a grind.

INSKEEP: Maybe we should just avoid the word happiness because it seems to confuse people.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. No, one of the things Lyubomirsky is actually saying is that we may have been too simplistic and asking questions - are parents happy or are parents non-happier? She says we need to start asking more nuanced questions. Which parents are we talking about? Are we talking about men or are we talking about women? Are we talking about older parents or younger parents? There's research showing that older parents tend to be happier than younger parents. Parents with jobs - not surprisingly - are happier than parents who are struggling economically. Parents who have biological or adopted children turn out to be happier in general than parents who have stepchildren. And Lyubomirsky said perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that parents will happiness is not one static thing that basically stays a constant throughout the life of a child. It varies, especially with the age of the child.

LYUBOMIRSKY: When you have children under five and when your children are teenagers, that's when you have the most kind of negative emotions and negative experiences with them. When they're in between those years and when they're older, there may be many, many positive, you know, interactions. So when we think about parenting we shouldn't just think about, you know, having a baby or having a 14-year-old.

INSKEEP: So this reminds me of the old quote from Tolstoy: Happy families are all alike. Unhappy families have kids under five or teenagers.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Well said, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @ HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.