Some smart bloggers seem terrifically excited by this finding , which purports to show that the well-established relationship between kids and happiness does not hold. Says econo-superblogger Tyler Cowen : “If you measure people’s thoughts, rather than asking them about their feelings, it seems they really enjoy the time they spend with their kids.” I can’t quite parse that sentence, but the study Cowen points to does nothing to negate the previous studies that show parents take a happiness hit with each new kid. Ask parents to write down how they feel while completing various tasks, and spending time with their children ranks very low on the happiness scale. Ask parents of young children how they feel about their lives, and on average they’ll report lower levels of subjective well-being than their childless counterparts. The newly hailed survey data, by contrast, asks parents to consider their previous day and determine whether an activity was “worthwhile” or “meaningful.” Unsurprisingly, parents think spending time with their kids is both.
Of course, no serious researcher has argued that parents don’t find the act of raising children fulfilling in some larger sense; the claim has always been that at any given moment there are many things an adult would rather do than wipe ice cream off a toddler’s face, and that parents with kids at home report less life satisfaction overall. Researchers asked parents to record their base level of enjoyment in a particular activity precisely to filter out mid-range evaluation of an activity’s meaning or satisfaction, both of which are going to be heavily determined by ideology and rationalization. I don’t doubt that kids are meaning-making, but it wouldn’t be culturally acceptable to say that taking care of your kids is meaningless even if it were.
More interesting to me than this study is the apparent hunger for some evidence that previous findings were incorrect or irrelevant. In his book Gross National Happiness , for example, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks makes a very big deal out of the fact that religious participation tends to increase self-reported happiness, but plays down similar data showing kids tend to lower the same. (I believe the data in both cases, but that doesn’t mean I think it should determine one’s decision to either believe or breed.) One needs to attribute incredible weight to this most recent survey to argue that it discredits previous findings, and yet the survey doesn’t even seem to say what its pro-child promoters want it to. Yes, adults say they find parenting relatively worthwhile and satisfying. But they find one activity even more rewarding: Work.
Photograph of a baby by Media Images/PhotoDisc/Getty Images.