Lately, I’ve been reading some stuff. This stuff has lodged in my cerebral cortex and, as I have been going about my business, cleaning my bathrooms and teaching spelling and watching Robert Downey Jr. play Tony Stark in Ironman2 (more on that later), this stuff niggles. It pesters. It demands further review.
Here’s the deal: there have apparently been several different studies published over the past decade that have all come to one resounding conclusion:
Having children decreases your overall happiness in life.
Well. Tie me to an anthill and fill my ears with jam.
You can read more about the studies here, in the April 2009 issue of The Psychologist in an article written by social scientist Nattavudh Powdthavee. It’s a very thought-provoking article, or at least, it provoked many thoughts by yours truly. Don’t worry, I will share them with you. I know you were worried.
Obviously, the idea that children will increase your happiness is inherently flawed. Happiness, as everyone should know (at least intellectually), comes from within, and if you are an unhappy, negative person as a non-parent, you will certainly not become a happy, positive person when you introduce a demanding little suckling into your life.
However, the suggestion, or–seeing as how it has been settled by the intractability of empirical data–the fact that child-free couples are happier than those with children is a bit of a startling concept to those of us, well…to those of us who have ’em, frankly.
Four different studies have apparently shown that, once children arrive on the scene, happiness levels decrease, and marital satisfaction, life satisfaction, and mental well-being all take a serious hit.
Oh my stars and garters, what have we done? I checked my kids; there’s no return address label!
But let’s back up a little bit before we start researching time machines. I’m not arguing with the results of the studies at all. I truly do believe that they are correct, for what it’s worth. It’s just that they beg a few important questions.
First of all, how do we define happiness?
If we are ranking how happy we are, shouldn’t we seek to ascertain if we are all on the same page first?
I would hazard a guess that if your criteria for happiness includes things like a clean house, a peaceful, quiet existence, a toned and fit body, plenty of spendable income, minimal stress, and maximum free time, then having children is almost certain to make you less happy than if you remain childless.
I’m not in any way saying those things are bad, or selfish to want. But thinking you can have them ALL and children too is unrealistic, which I believe hits close to home in the “happy” arena. Many people go into parenthood with a grossly unrealistic view of what it will entail.
The studies were concentrated in Europe and the USA, which is also telling. What other cultures are as steeped in the have-it-all mentality than we are? We are told daily and repeatedly that a certain body and a certain lifestyle will make us happy. Happiness is defined continually for us by the billboards and advertisements that bombard us every moment of our lives. Children are diametrically opposed to that definition.
Let’s look at the facts.
Children will affect your pocketbook. While I do not hold to the popular “how much will it cost to have a child” statistics, it is undeniable that adding children to your life will require certain expenses to increase. Period. You might have to give up weekly pedi-manis. You might have to sell your boat. You might have to give up your home office to make way for the little tyke. You might have to choose between glasses for jr. and the latest home entertainment center.
Children will increase your stress levels. Sure, they bring immeasurable joy to our lives that we would never experience otherwise, but let’s face it: sometimes they can bring levels of grief we never thought possible, too. If you protest that your children have never, ever qualified for that equation, then get out of here. No, seriously. Go away. I don’t want to know you.
The more children you have, the greater your chances for that grief, in the form of sickness, emotional upheaval, or, God forbid, death. You have more to worry about, for pete’s sake. If you don’t worry, you’re some kind of android and, once again, I wish you well, but leave now. Most of us run into issues with our kids, and suddenly it becomes apparent that our superpowers are not going to be sufficient to protect them from everything. And what parent in the world would claim to be “happy” if one of their kids is hurting? And the more you have, the more your chances that one of them is not going to be blissfully content every moment of every day.
Along those lines, can I just say? Having children is cripplingly humbling. Think about your opinion of yourself before you had kids. You were patient. You were cool. You were intelligent. You were loving. You were kind. Frankly, you were ten shades of awesome. Then kids came along and proved that all previously established levels of the aforementioned descriptives were grossly unchallenged and thus inherently erroneous. In other words: ya never knew just how great you were until you were incessently forced to prove it.
So there you go. The three reasons kids make us less happy:
- We can’t have all the crap we want.
- We worry more.
- We aren’t nearly as bodacious as we thought.
But hold on one minute.
When I see this list, two words come to mind.
Now, no psychologist in the world would argue that personal growth is not something to aspire towards in our lifetimes. Sure, our yearbooks all have “don’t ever change!” written in them by our classmates, but who truly wants to remain static, stagnating in immaturity and boredom?
And yet, can I just suggest that personal growth isn’t always a “happy” experience to go through? Frankly, growth is painful, often to the point that it makes you want to lay down and die rather than go on with it. No one going through a trial will say they are “happy”, although once they are through it they will probably assure you that it was for their greater good to have been there. Trials and testings produce character we never could have found in a peaceful little cloister of our own making.
I’m not saying that the child-free have no opportunities for personal growth, just that those with children are prone to daily re-evaluations and personal assessments that might never occur otherwise (should the parents choose to accept such challenges, which is a whole ‘nuther issue).
So, do the results of these studies simply boil down to one real question?
Is happiness, after all, the be-all, end-all goal to life?
It’s a good question. One that we probably don’t really consider on most days. We spend an inordinate time seeking to preserve our well-being, establish a status-quo that ranks considerably above “just okay”, whether we have children or not. But, especially if we claim to be Christians, we are called for quite the opposite: to give our lives away for a greater cause. Happiness was never meant to be an earthly pursuit; our Lord has plenty of it for us where we’re going. Delayed gratification is a concept our culture will never embrace as a whole, but if we individually do not, we will most certainly be desperately unhappy, no matter what lifestyle we choose.