Are Us Child-Free Folks Happier Than Our Peers With Kids?

Are there times when being a parent totally sucks? I’m sure there are. But there are also times when it totally sucks to be a friend, a lover, a spouse, a partner, or anything else.
Publish date:
February 27, 2013
kids, childfree, childless, science, you keep using this word...

Things that exist in the world: happiness researchers.

Humans have actually invested a lot of energy in finding that magic combination of elements that will lead to happiness, so it’s not at all surprising that psychologists, social scientists, and more have dedicated serious research time to trying to quantify happiness. They look at all sorts of things like responses to self-assessment surveys, social indicators like overall creativity, and more. And one of them, Dan Gilbert, is considered a bit of a “happiness expert.”

His 2007 book “Stumbling On Happiness” was a big hit, in part because it presented some unusual and challenging information to readers. He argues that cognitive biases play a key role in how people predict future happiness and make decisions about how to direct their lives, and that these biases lead people astray; in other words, you think you know what would make you happy, but your brain is fooling you.

Sidebar: A minute ago I thought eating a piece of chocolate would make me happy, so I did, and now I feel happy. STUDY REFUTED, am I right?

Gilbert, a professor at Harvard, has made rather a career for himself out of his research and his book, and that includes, of course, lecture tours. Which is where the media come in, because they love to report on pop science, and Gilbert’s lectures are very much designed to be accessible to the layperson. And when the Daily Fail gets involved, you know it’s going to be especially good.

So, Gilbert has a talk, “Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You,” that he’s been trotting around for a while. Not having actually seen the talk, I can’t discuss the specific contents, but the press release from Harvard covers some of the basics: He claims that married people are happier, that couples earning between $50,000 and $70,000 are happiest, and that couples without children are happier than those with children.


Harvard, unhappily, doesn’t cite the research behind Gilbert’s claims, which focuses on using metrics like health, longevity and other “happiness indicators,” apparently, to determine whether people are happy. And to attempt to come up with measurable outcomes, which is hard when you’re talking about a feeling, rather than something that can be put into firm terms. My happiness is not your happiness, you know?

The Daily Fail positions this as “Parenting make[s] us miserable.”

Uh. OK. Look. I’m childfree. I emphatically do not want kids and I’m pretty stoked about the fact that there aren’t any children in my life, although I’m already doomed in the happiness department because I’m not married, apparently. But I know lots of people (single, married, and otherwise) with kids who would take exception to this study; in fact, our own Emily already has this very morning. She has a son and she’s totally stoked about it.

Now, the plural of anecdotes is not data, but there's got to be a reason that many parents express happiness about being parents, regardless of supposedly scientific measurements.

Gilbert likened having kids to watching a Red Sox-Yankees game where no run is scored until Sox slugger David Ortiz hits a game-winning homer in the ninth. “One will always remember that magical, momentary ending,” but forget the uneventful innings before. “That’s just like spending a day with a 5-year old,” he said, when an “I wub you” from the child may validate all the difficult hours.

That pretty much describes every meaningful human relationship ever. Are you serious, Dr. Gilbert? Yeah, interacting with people that you love comes with long periods of uneventful moments, and then awesome ones. That’s kind of how life works.

Marriage, for example, is not one continuous home run. Sometimes you’ve got days or weeks where it’s all about making things work and focusing on other things; but maintaining and building that relationship is worth it because you love each other, and you know that you’ll have great moments together.


And the same goes for kids. Sure, living with kids can be hard. Living with people can be hard. And the fact is that families with kids might perform poorly on certain “happiness indicators” but I think that means we should take a closer look at those indicators and their cultural context.

For example, are families with kids less healthy? Possibly! And for all kinds of reasons, like infections brought home from the classroom, or stress-related illness because living in a society that’s not very child-friendly is actually a lot of work. Do they tend to have less money? Yes, because raising kids costs money. Do they have less free time to do stuff? Yes, because having children is a time commitment.

There’s an important social context that I’m not seeing discussed here. Family life doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s not some arrangement of parents and children. It’s parenting in society at large, and don’t forget that society at large has a lot of Opinions about children that create added stress for kids and parents. Don’t do this, do that, we’re taking your benefits away, we’re forcing your kid to transfer to a new and unfamiliar school, your child isn’t welcome here.

What I’m saying here is that I want some evidence that these authoritative happiness studies are considering the full social context, not just the isolated family unit. Because, as I put it in an email to Emily this morning, “I so call bullshit on this.”

Are there times when being a parent totally sucks? I’m sure there are. But there are also times when it totally sucks to be a friend, a lover, a spouse, a partner, or anything else. Because humans, man. We’re complicated. And we persist with these ridiculous relationships that sometimes wrench our hearts out and stomp on them because sometimes, well. Sometimes you get to do something amazing together, and that’s pretty damn cool.