The Investment

Oh, not this again.

Sociologists are discovering that children may not make parents happier and that childless adults, contrary to popular stereotypes, may often be more contented than people with kids.
Parents “definitely experienced more depression,” says Robin Simon, a sociologist at Florida State University who has studied data on parenting.

“Part of our cultural beliefs is that we derive all this joy from kids,” says Simon. “It’s really hard for people who don’t feel this to admit it.” Social pressures to view only the positive aspects of child rearing only make the problem worse, she says. “They’re afraid to admit it because it runs so counter to our cultural beliefs that children make you happy.

I’ve called bullshit on this before. And the article notes why:

The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to quantify pleasure on a moment-by-moment basis that it is to quantify something as intangible as “unconditional love”. Changing a diaper isn’t enjoyable, and teenagers can be such a pain in the ass, but having kids can also be a profound source of meaning for people. (I like the amateur marathoner metaphor: survey a marathoner in the midst of the race and they’ll complain about their legs and that rash and how the race seems like it’s taking forever. But when the running is over they are always incredibly proud of their accomplishment. Having kids, then, is like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) The larger point, though, is that just because we can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important, or that we should always privilege the quantifiable (pleasure) over the intangible (meaning). Real life is complex stuff.

Exactly. These sense of accomplishment and continuity I will feel as Abby grows up and lives her life is worth a little misery when she pukes all over the couch.

But there’s more. When you have children, you aren’t just trading happiness for some nebulous sense of worth, you’re investing in future happiness. You sacrifice some freedom and happiness today for greater happiness tomorrow. While the instantaneous measure of happiness for parents is lower, the integral of happiness over their lives is likely larger.

Think about this. Suicide rates peak for people in their 70′s and 80′s and the principle motive is loneliness. Having children doesn’t guarantee you won’t be alone when you’re old. But it vastly increases the chance that you won’t be sitting around in an empty house wishing you could go back in time and have kids.

That’s the investment of having children. It’s like saving money for retirement rather than splurging on a car or a flat panel TV that would make you happy today. I’m curious as to what a similar poll would show for people who spend all their money and people versus invest for retirement. I guarantee that people who don’t save for the future are happier. But in the long run, they will be less happy than those who save for their retirement.

Jesus Christ, have sociologists never heard of delayed gratification? Apparently not. This just goes to prove what I’ve always thought: sociology is for people who are too dumb to do economics.

You know, I think that the best thing about this is that the people conducting these studies, if they act on their results, won’t pass their defective genes on to the next generation. So at least my grand-children won’t have to waste time on their blogs tearing apart this nonsense.

Now I will grant that having children isn’t for everyone. And I don’t want to sound like I’m looking down my nose at childless people. Barring an asteroid strike, our race isn’t likely to extinct anytime soon. But then again, that some people get more pleasure out of breeding than others is yet another stake in the heart of this “study”. As I said at Right-Thinking, measuring happiness this way is like giving everyone the same size shoe.

9 Responses to “The Investment”

  1. rpl says:

    Mike, this is a bizarrely anti-scientific post coming from someone who makes a living as a scientist. What you seem to be saying is, “I don’t care what the data says; it is counter to my personal experience, so it must be wrong.” In what way is this attitude any different from that displayed by the people who “know” that the world is only 6,000 years old and won’t be convinced otherwise by mere science?

    You claim to “guarantee” that people who save money are less happy than people who don’t. How can you make such a guarantee when you have absolutely no data on the subject beyond your own anecdotal experience? Likewise, you conjecture that people who have children are giving up short-term happiness in favor of happiness in their later years, but then, having concocted this just-so story you consider the claim proven, without need of further study. That is the reasoning of an ignorant fool, not of a scientist.

    I wonder, is this how you conduct your investigations in astronomy? If not, then why are you applying that sort of anecdotal reasoning here?

    -robert.

  2. Mike says:

    I’m more poking holes in this garbage. The word “guarantee” was a bad choice but measuring happiness this way is garbage. The measure of happiness is over someone’s life, not as some instant in time. I don’t see anything “unscientific” in pointing this out, as well as pointing out that measuring happiness this way is like giving everyone the same sized shoe.

    Nor is there anything unscientific in pointing out that there is more to life than happiness, such as a sense of accomplishment or a sense of continuity with the past and future.

  3. rpl says:

    So, since you don’t like their result you want to change the definition of what they are measuring to something that you think (but are careful not to verify) will produce a result more to your liking. That doesn’t seem intellectually honest to me, and it’s certainly not grounds to pronounce a study “garbage”.

    I agree that a longitudinal study to determine how people’s happiness changes in time with and without children would be interesting. However, the claim that happiness at a point in time is irrelevant is just silly. Ask any marriage counselor if he’s ever had clients who had a child as a way of saving a faltering marriage, and ask him how often the strategy worked, for instance. The conventional wisdom is that having children will make you happier *right here and now*, and that alone makes the subject worth studying.

    Finally, parsing life satisfaction into “happiness” per se, versus “sense of accomplishment” and “sense of continuity” seems like hair-splitting. The fraction of people who would report themselves as “unhappy but satisfied with my life because I have a sense of accomplishment” has got to be negligible. Most people who are feeling pleased with the course their life is taking will report themselves as “happy” in this kind of study. I’ll bet even you would, if you could tear yourself out of the debunking at all costs mindset.

  4. Mike says:

    “The conventional wisdom is that having children will make you happier *right here and now*, and that alone makes the subject worth studying.”

    I’ve never thought this when it came to kids. I knew I was sacrificing some happiness now for happiness later. And people who have kids to save a marriage are missing the point.

    “The fraction of people who would report themselves as “unhappy but satisfied with my life because I have a sense of accomplishment” has got to be negligible.”

    I disagree. Happiness is a very complicated issue. I was happier when I was younger because I had few responsibilities and could drink three beers without getting a hangover. And given my present funding situation and career prospects, I’m a lot less happy with my job situation than I was then.

    On the other hand, I can look back at papers published and lectures given and feel some sense of satisfaction. If I’m forced out, I won’t regret going into astronomy. I’ll be unhappy but the integral of the last 15 years will have been worth it. or if I were to get a faculty job, the unpleasantness of the postdoc years will have been worth it. Saying, “parents aren’t as happy as non-parents” is like observing that postdocs aren’t terribly happy. We aren’t terribly happy. But it’s a sacrifice we make in the hope of getting a job that will make us happy.

    To go reducto ad absurdem, an old man can be unhappy because he has few years left and his health is fading. But he can feel a sense of accomplishment for what he has done with his life — in particular how his kids turned out. I used to see this “I’m unhappy now, but I’m satisfied” attitude all the time at retirement homes. I also saw it all the time from veterans angry at the way they were treated by the VA, bitter over the loss of health and limb and comrades — but still proud and satisfied that they had served in battle.

    Our happiness tends to get very wrapped up in what’s going on at the moment. When my computer busted recently, I was very unhappy for a moment. But I cooled down quickly and laughed it off. With long-term stressful things — children or health problems in particular — the urgency of the moment does not relent and a person can be unhappy even though, looked at more objectively, he’s happy with the integral of his life so far and does not regret the decisions that led him to this point.

    Part of my problem is that I refuse to buy into this utilitarian concept of “happiness” and happiness as the end-all, be-all of human existence.

    And a huge amount of the human experience is delayed gratification. We save money so that we can enjoy our later years; we don’t do drugs to maintain our health; we study in school so that we can get good jobs and/or become more enlightened; we don’t have random sex to avoid disease and unwanted pregnancy. The underpinning of human civilization, I would argue, is the acceptance of delayed gratification.

    To not even mention this in a study revolving around the most common delayed gratification — the sacrifice a parent must make — in money, in freedom and in happiness — to raise kids, is asinine.

  5. Mike says:

    I would also add that the happiness argument doesn’t wash with me because there is more to life than being happy. I would be happier if I lived in blissful political ignorance. I would be happier if I believe Christian eschatology. I would be happier if I didn’t watch movies like United 93 or Dekalog.

    But I don’t think my life would be better.

  6. rpl says:

    So, fundamentally your argument boils down to two prongs:

    1) I didn’t go into parenthood with any illusions about how it would be in the short term; therefore nobody has such illusions. Therefore, any study examining those illusions is worthless.

    2) I have a complex definition of “happiness” that does not equate to overall life satisfaction. Happiness, by my definition, is much less important than other factors that contribute to life satisfaction, and it is therefore not worth studying. When people self-report happiness they necessarily report happiness according to my definition; therefore, happiness studies are measuring an unimportant, ephemeral quality.

    Arguments based on generalizing from anecdotal experience are weak arguments, as are arguments that rely on private definitions of key terms. In fact, I’d be interested to know what your definition of happiness is. I imagine it must be quite complex, given your lengthy description of what does and does not contribute to it. Then I’d wonder how widely accepted your definition is. Would you often find yourself explaining to people who thought they were happy that they really are not or vice versa? Then, and this is the key point where my claim that your thinking is anti-scientific is concerned, I would wonder if your definition would have been nearly so complex and idiosyncratic if you had formulated it *before* you read a study on happiness that you had decided to disagree with.

    Finally, you are still supposing, with no supporting data, that if the study took greater account of the effects of delayed gratification, then it would show something different. That is far from obvious because it is entirely possible that people factor their expectations about future satisfaction into their reports on their current “happiness”. For example, part of the reason I report myself as happy today is that I know I have been saving for the future. If I had spent it all on consumption and had no savings, then my reported happiness now would be less, not more as you claim.

  7. Mike says:

    “1) I didn’t go into parenthood with any illusions about how it would be in the short term; therefore nobody has such illusions. Therefore, any study examining those illusions is worthless.”

    I didn’t say that. But you were going from anecdote to dat by saying that since some people think babies will make everything great, everyone does. In the absence of data on why people choose to have kids, my anecdote is just as good as yours.

    “2) I have a complex definition of “happiness” that does not equate to overall life satisfaction. Happiness, by my definition, is much less important than other factors that contribute to life satisfaction, and it is therefore not worth studying. When people self-report happiness they necessarily report happiness according to my definition; therefore, happiness studies are measuring an unimportant, ephemeral quality.”

    I’m illustrating a point. A single standard definition of happiness is foolish. I’m reminded of Frank Luntz and polling — you can get a different answer based on how you phrase the question.

    In the end, you can only rely on the Wisdom of Crowds: since most people are choosing to have children — and usually more than one, this indicates it is improving their lives in some way that doesn’t directly translate to “happiness” on some sociologists’s questionaire.

    A lot of this frankly smacks of “you don’t know what’s best for you” ism, i.e, that these fools having kids don’t realize it’s not making them happy. Happiness is more complex than just “Are you happy today?”

    “Finally, you are still supposing, with no supporting data, that if the study took greater account of the effects of delayed gratification, then it would show something different.”

    What I’m saying is that an intaneous reading of someone’s life does not give you the full integral. How does happiness vary with age? Are people with kids in their 80′s happier than those without? What about in their 50′s or 20′s? As the original article said, asking someone if they are happy with their kids is like asking someone in the middle of a marathon if he’s happy. It’s a useless question.

  8. Mike says:

    PS – It’s fun getting into an argument with you again. Ah, I miss those days when you’d wander into our office to escape the Bogon flux.

  9. rpl says:

    To your first point, for a belief to be worth studying it isn’t necessary that “everyone” believe something; it is only necessary that the belief be reasonably common. I’m basing my claim on my personal knowledge of a couple of cases and on claims by an acquaintance that she encounters the phenomenon fairly regularly in her practice as a therapist. That meets my standard for “reasonably common”. Furthermore, I think that when judging whether a scientific investigation is worth doing or not, a little benefit of doubt is in order.

    To your second point, I have two responses. First, an appeal to conventional wisdom to refute a scientific finding is invalid. Science overturns conventional wisdom all the time. We should look at both scientific findings and conventional wisdom with due skepticism, but with certain exceptions, in a conflict between science and conventional wisdom, science is usually right. I concede, however, that sociology studies are more likely to to be among those exceptions than, say, physics.

    More importantly, however, is that you are imputing a causality to the study that I don’t think the authors ever claimed. So far as I know, the conclusion is that people with kids are on average less happy than people without, not that having kids makes people unhappy. It is possible that unhappy people are more likely to have kids than happy people. It is also possible that something coincident with having children makes some people unhappy (remember that to pull the average down it is not necessary for everyone to be unhappy; a modest-sized population of unhappy parents will do if not offset by a similar population in the childless group.)

    As an aside, it’s true, as you observe, that the answers to a survey can depend a lot on how the question is phrased, but if you want to criticize that aspect of the study, then you need to dig into how they actually phrased the questions and whether or not they ran several surveys with different phrasing. Pronouncing the study worthless and then speculating after the fact that bad phrasing might have had something to do with it just isn’t cricket.

    To your last point, those are all valid questions, but a single study can’t answer all possible questions on a subject, and a good researcher always leaves room for “further study” at the end of his paper. Furthermore, I’m not so convinced that the time effect is as important as you think because, as I mentioned before, people factor future expectations into their reports on happiness. Take your hypothetical marathon runner. In the middle of the race his muscles may be burning and his joints aching, but if he’s on track to run a good race he may well feel (and report himself to be) happy.

    To your postscript, it’s one of the things I miss most about having an academic career.

    -r