Measuring happiness

Men don’t much care for kids, especially those between 5 and 15, according to a British study that came out last week, as quoted by the BBC.


The study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research suggests non-working mothers are more satisfied with life once their children start school.

For men, the presence of children brings no increase in life satisfaction.

Ouch. There it is. Kids bring no joy to men, and women aren’t all that thrilled about having them either, said the study from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, which found:

  • Life satisfaction for men is influenced only by whether they have a job.
  • The presence of children brings no increase in life satisfaction for men — and an increase in the life satisfaction for women only when the kids are attending school.

    In other words, parents are only truly happy when the kids aren’t around. Surely, the areyoukiddingme-o-meter must be moving slightly here.

    Those of us with kids might be inclined to view this strictly in evaluating ourselves and our children. Then we remember that we are someone’s child. And we never brought happiness to our parents. Really?

    The study asked the participants two questions about their job satisfaction, and one about their life satisfaction, comparing the two in order to determine the difference.

    The results are not far from that reported by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert in Time Magazine last year, released during the most indecent of all holidays, apparently: Father’s Day.


    Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away. When the popular press invented a malady called “empty-nest syndrome,” it failed to mention that its primary symptom is a marked increase in smiling.

    Leave it to the cheery Scots to put the exclamation point on this. “Parenting puts an end to domestic bliss,” one headline said.

    These assessments, it should be pointed out, are coming not from psychologists, but from economists. A social scientist would approach the issue by asking people how happy they are. Economists will not. Why? Slate looked at that question last week in an article, “The not-so-dismal science.”


    … although you choose your spouse but not your parents, people seem to enjoy spending time with their parents more than they enjoy spending time with their spouses. Maybe Oedipus had the right idea after all.

    On the other hand, married people claim to be happier than single people do. What explains the discrepancy? The difference rests on an unexpected distinction: How satisfied you are with your life is not at all the same thing as how you feel while you are living it.

    Right. Of course. Just because you might feel happy, it doesn’t mean that you are happy. Economists.

    Given a shot at it, psychologists seem to approach the question differently, as the BBC told us in a series last year called, The Happiness Formula.


    First, family and friends are crucial – the wider and deeper the relationships with those around you the better.

    It is even suggested that friendship can ward off germs. Our brains control many of the mechanisms in our bodies which are responsible for disease.

    Just as stress can trigger ill health, it is thought that friendship and happiness can have a protective effect.

    According to happiness research, friendship has a much bigger effect on average on happiness than a typical person’s income itself.

    The series concluded that, “Scientists clearly do not have all the answers. There is as yet no simple and comprehensive formula for happiness.”

    One survey, then, is as good — or not — as the next. So, then, are you happy?

    For more information:

    MPR blog: How’s the Family?

    Morning Edition interview

    • Linda Reed

      My hubby showed me this and I just have to comment. We have been married for 31 years and raised 5 children together. The key to happiness is to teach them to respect you and to put your marriage vows first. Larry and I did this from the start and it worked. This is a liberal based, anti marriage study and is surely doesn’t consider what happy married couples know about staying together. Two of our five children are starting their own families, with one granchild in the “oven” We don’t need studies like this to tell us what keeps happiness alive, And I never worked a day outside the home, except to help out at school or at our church.

    • Bob Collins

      There’s no question — and I speak only from experience — that raising children is, perhaps, the hardest thing on earth to do. Still, I’ve rarely met parents whose lives aren’t centered on family. Not because they have to, but because they want to.

      The other aspect of the study seems to focus on children as defined by ages 5-15. That’s like leaving after the 8th inning. 10 years?

      Liberal? Conservative. Working outside the home. Staying home? I’m guessing that more than a few satisfied old-timers of all persuasions have looked back at their lives with a little more context and perspective and said, “yeah…. THAT was fun. It was cool loving someone to the extent that you’d run into a burning building to save them. No questions asked”

      How many other things in live can you say that about?

      Economists measuring happiness? They can’t even measure the economy.

    • http://AOL mel

      One classic definition of happiness in having something to do, someone or something to love, and something to hope for or look forward to. By that definition, children give one a LOT of happiness. They keep you very busy (something to do), they typically are objects of our love, and they certainly provide plenty to hope for or look forward to as they grow up. Happiness is not just self-indulgence and selfish pursuits; one may derive some brief and superficial “delight” from pleasing the self but nothing like true happiness derived from the three elements of that classic definition.

    • bsimon

      “Life satisfaction for men is influenced only by whether they have a job.”

      I can agree with that. The 14 months I took off from work – as an adult – were the happiest in my life. Perhaps not what the study meant though…

      Listening to Kathy W & guest discussing the study this AM, I tend to agree. As a late 30s man with a small child at home (approaching 10 1/2 months), her addition has added more stress than happiness, thus far. While watching her grow & learn has its rewards, the moments of panic & feeling helpless can outweigh them. “Sorry, I’m not mommy, she’s out. Want a bottle? Want me to sing? Want me to walk around the house? Want to play? Want a bottle? Want me to sing? Want me to walk around the house? Want to play? Want a bottle? Want me to sing? Want me to walk around the house? Want to play? Want a bottle? Want me to sing? Want me to walk around the house? Want to play? No? Mommy’s not home. She’ll be home soon. God, I hope she’ll be home soon…”

    • Bob Collins

      This is all very upsetting. Very depressing. I’m sitting here trying to think of the most satisfying moments of my life and I can’t think of a single one that involves a job. Granted, I’m glad I have one and I’m sure my life would be immensely miserable if I didn’t.

      But the starkness of the study wrt to “the presence of children brings no increase in life satisfaction for men” is difficult to comprehend.

      Theoretically, if this were true, there would be no discernable reduction in “life satisfaction” upon the death of a child. It would, therefore, be less stressful losing a child, than losing a job.

      Surely that notion is absurd, right? (PLEASE tell me that theory is absurd!). It’s probably lousy science for an economist to acknowledge, but if their conclusion is as stated, I don’t see how a test of its validity wouldn’t include that notion.

      I’ve read the study. I’ve seen the mathematical equations that are said to prove the conclusion. And maybe it just passes the math test, but not the smell test.

      Or maybe I’m just not Brit material.

      Is there anyone out there who would trade their child for their job? Step forward, please.

    • Catherine Winter

      Daniel Gilbert, who is a psychologist, not an economist, cites a raft of studies that demonstrate that parenthood doesn’t make people happier. But you can’t conclude from that that people are selfish or pleasure-seeking or liberal, or that they don’t love their children.

      Just the opposite is true.

      The fact that people are still willing to run into a burning building to save their children — even though taking care of children does not make them happy — demonstrates that they DO love their children. They love their children so much that they’re willing to put up with the work and anxiety and boredom and annoyance children bring.

      Nanci Olesen, the Family Desk reporter at MPR, had a conversation about this study with Cathy Wurzer this morning. It’ll be posted later this morning on MPR’s Morning Edition site.

    • Bob Collins

      I believe I mentioned Gilbert’s pedigree in the original.

      Gilbert’s premise, by the way, is based on assumptions that take him halfway to his rather controversial conclusions. That those who feel happy (or satisfied) really don’t. That the media made up the empty nest syndrome. If someone says they’re happy… or satisfied… the response is usually “oh, that’s not happiness…or satisfaction. That’s something else.”

      Gilbert, specifically, says “the problem with kids is they’re a pain in the ass more often than you’re thinking about,” which makes you wonder: if you’re not thinking about it, is it true? He also says that whatever you get out of children is “superior to happiness.” But apparently that doesn’t contribute to satisfaction,either.

      There are actually two words here that are in play: happy, and satisfaction. Perhaps the two are not interchangeable. But does one contribute to the other, and, if so, in which direction and to what extent? Since math is involved in the study, that should be an easily answerable question. The people doing the survey had people answer the “satisfaction” questions on a scale of 1 to 10. They did not, as far as I know, define what constitutes satisfaction wrt happiness.

      To say that one’s life satisfaction is calculated ONLY by one’s job and that where children are concerned, love (and supposedly satisfaction would be a biproduct of love, perhaps), love is offset by the work, anxiety, boredom and annoyance, would seem to suggest that one’s employment does not also involve anxiety, boredom, annoyance and work or that whatever satisfaction comes from that, is whatever is left AFTER the investment of anxiety, boredom, annoyance and work.

      And what is THAT? What is it that’s left. Money? Self-esteem?

      I can’t buy your argument, Catherine. Because if one loves another so much that one would rush into a burning building… surely there is a measurable satisfaction — or any other word you choose — that is left after the “negatives” above are factored into the equation.

      There simply HAS to be. Common sense says so. That this study found that there was none — at least in men — makes me very much question the methodology involved, either in the choice of words, or the decision to group responses to questions not having to do with children per se, into groups of people, separating out the answers of the group WITH kids, finding they matched the answers without kids and concluding that the net effect of kids was negligible.

      Which, I believe, is what the study did.

      It’s also worth pointing out that this was a study done in the U.K., of U.K. people. In its various descriptions here in the U.S., that fact has been dropped. If find that interesting. Is there a difference between work and family in the U.K. vs. U.S?

      Still, like I said, I’m ready to be swayed, as soon as a majority of men with children step forward and say that their life satisfaction is entirely attributable to their job. Besides Gilbert, of course, whose bios mention nothing about his family or children.

      And then I need to find out where those guys work.

      BTW, I mentioned to Nanci this morning that I’d link to her interview with M.E. here whenever it gets encoded.

    • Nanci Olesen

      I’d love to see a diverse panel of parents talk about their lifestyle and career changes when they had children. People who are in college or are in that age range could hear first hand what it might be like for them if they wanted to plan to be parents.

      We have training for so many roles in life. I wish there was more “training” for parents. Maybe that would make for happier parents?

      Happiness. How do you study it? How do you quantify it?

      But parenting is indeed grueling work and it is a dramatic change in the relationship between the two people who have the kid. Many marriages change for the worse when kids come along.

      Many couples without children are happy and fulfilled by their work, their extended families, and their interests.

      I like to think that we are progressing toward a society where there is not so much negative judgment toward the couple who doesn’t have kids.

      People who choose to not have children, couples who remain child-free, report being able to stay connected to one another in a way that really has to be worked on by a couple who has kids.

    • Bob Collins

      I don’t deny — trust me on this — that parenting isn’t grueling work. I don’t deny that marriages change when kids come along.

      My suspicion is, however, that the attention surrounding the study — and the general lack of skepticism — is very much linked to some weird sense that parents without kids feeling they have to justify that decision. So they come up with a study that shows that parents WITH kids don’t really get any satisfaction.

      I mean, seriously, consider this conclusion again: “Life satisfaction for men is influenced only by whether they have a job.”

      I’m not sure what is more disturbing: that such a sweeping judgment was made or that more people nodding their heads in agreement — including the non-parent friends of mine who thrust their fist into the air as if to say, ‘in your face, Daddy’ today — didn’t question the methodology behind it or consider what else besides science might be behind its conclusion.

    • Darielle Dannen

      I think the question of whether children bring satisfaction into someone’s life is an interesting question. Of course, the desire to have and raise children will always be a strong one because without it humans would cease to exist. However, with that “phase” of the human life cycle no longer being necessary (thank you birth control) it seems natural that some people would start to ask these kinds of questions. I find it very interesting and attempted to study this question while in college about ten years ago, but no studies existed at that time. It would be a wonderful world in my opinion if couples considering whether to have children could get a wide range of information in making that decision. I think if anything we need more studies on this issue. I think everyone wants to make decisions that will result in lifetime satisfaction and would rather not make a bad choice – especially if you ruin a child’s life in the process!

    • Bob Collins

      That is an extremely insightful point and that would be an excellent study.

      The undercurrent of the study would appear to be what people’s expectations for their lives are vs. what ended up happening.

      Gilbert, who never actually cites the studies he says exist, really only focuses on that question: can you predict happiness.

      So that would be an excellent question of people considering children: Why?

      I can certainly say from first-person experience that raising children brings things that you never in a million years expect. But how many people’s lives — even those without children — go the way people expect?

    • Erik Jensen

      I haven’t read the study, but there may be a subtle and important difference between happiness and a feeling that there is meaning to one’s life. Children, for alot of of people, myself included, add to the latter feeling, and may detract from the former.

      I wonder if the sense of meaning in one’s life overrides an increase in daily discomfort or crankiness or whatever for most of us who have decided to have kids.

      One other point to look into on the study was the question of the participants – did it just study those who wanted children and then what happened to their level of happiness after they had children ? Or did it contrast those who decided not to have children with those who had kids, and did this latter group have kids because…religious belief, or their spouse wanted them, or they love children, or they wanted the kind of relationship only a parent has with a child, or they just got pregnant….????

      All of this would have a big impact on conclusions.

      Erik Jensen

    • Bob Collins

      If you get a chance, click on the link above and read the actual study and methodology.

      There were no actual questions about kids, the reasons for having them etc., in the survey. Each person surveyed was asked to rate their satisfaction scale on a 1-10 (or 0-10, I forget which). One question asked ab out their “life satisfaction.” That was pretty much the extent to which the authors delved into the children question.

      To may way of htinking, that’s nowhere near deep enough to be able to state the conclusions in such stark, unambiguous terms as they did.

      And, of course, it ignores the obvious. What I might put down as a 4, might be a 6 to you. So comparing the scores of different people together and seeing a difference (or even a similarity) there is, again to my way of thinking utterly preposterous.

      I’m not statistician — although I’d love to hear from one or two — but there doesn’t appear to be much science in the study, which is why I’m curious about the motives behind it.