Well, my day’s shot! I just came across one. You’ve probably read them before, these articles that shower bad news about how much children cost and how unhappy they make you. Delusional parents believing that kids are worth all the money and time and frustration and effort, but the plain truth is that kids make parents unhappy. We are suckers and pretenders, forced to fake a smile as we live a life of regret and envy.
Wholly cow! Is that real? Seems real. Scientifically proven. Psychological research indicates that working mothers rank caring for children just slightly higher than commuting or chores. Childless couples report being more content than those with children. Changing diapers, cleaning spills, chauffeuring, punishing -- it’s all a cause for depression!
The recent study indicates that parents, when reminded about the costs of children, report that children are more rewarding than parents who were not reminded. This difference is caused by cognitive dissonance, which is the internal struggle when two incompatible ideas collide inside a person’s mind. In this case, the parents have been reminded of a child’s great cost and so they inflate their feeling of love and happiness to keep the bad feelings out.
I offer simple contradictory proof: My wife and I have 3 children. After my first I had smelled the dirty diapers and cleaned the vomit. Yet we chose to have another. After the second I had experienced the terrible twos, learning to walk and talk, and another dose of poop and barf. Yet we again chose to have another. That's quite a delusion!
So why the disconnect? Why are researchers finding this?
Researchers Asked Dumb Questions
Children are totally integrated into your life, from the moment they’re born until death. This is not remotely the same as having a dollar in your pocket with which you can buy a donut at the slightest whim. That donut is pure happiness for a minute or two, but then it’s gone. It doesn’t make sense to compare the dollar or the donut against children and say, “Which makes you happier, a dollar, a donut or cleaning up baby vomit?” That’s a dumb question.
Another dumb scenario: A child is the closest family member you have and you’re totally responsible for it. It’s almost like a limb, perhaps your arm. Now, sometimes your arm hurts because you bump it or cut it, and you do also have to wash your hands after eating ribs, trim the fingernails, maybe do some curls or push-ups to keep it strong. “Does trimming your fingernails make you happy?” is a dumb question. Even “Does your arm make you happy?” is pretty dumb. You want to keep it? What if I tell you that you that cutting off your arms saves you all that maintenance work PLUS you could save money on clothes because you'd only have to buy tank tops from now on! Dumb suggestions and dumb questions.
It’s About the Meaning of Life
If all we cared about were happiness then we have drugs for that! We could just be constantly high until we died. Too bad not many people reading this would say, “Hey, what a great idea!” Why is that? Because such a life is wasted, meaningless. But it would be really happy.
Children are a main way that people can find some form of meaning. Kids are important responsibilities and they create legacies to live on after parents cease to exist. People are highly motivated to find a purpose or meaning to their lives (see Victor Frankl’s classic Man's Search for Meaning). Lack of meaning in life eventually causes unhappiness as we realize our mortality. Finding meaning is the cure.
Finally: Researchers Aren’t Finding Much Interesting
We all make excuses to justify ourselves. This is the hallmark of dealing with dissonance, we try to balance it out. If I ask you the following:
“You just spent $10,000 on that Rolex, do you like it?”
Then you may strongly say:
“Yeah, of course I like it, I bought it didn’t I. It’s awesome, totally worth every penny for this beautiful and high quality piece of jewelry that will last for decades and I’ll pass on to my kids.”
If I ask you instead:
“You just spent $10,000 on that beautiful and high quality watch, which will give you satisfaction and pride for decades and could be passed down as a family heirloom. Do you like it?”
Then you might just say:
If I’m just yapping to you about the costs, then you feel the need to come up with benefits to justify it. It will seem like you’re more enthusiastic than if I hit a more balanced view. Such a result is what the researchers found. They said “Your kids cost 190K, are you going to spend a lot of time with them?” and the subjects said “You bet! Tons of time, we’ll go camping and to Disneyworld and when I’m old they’ll visit with the grand-kids and they’ll be there for me when I’m on death’s door, and so on.” To others they said “Your kids cost 190K but they will give you lots of great memories, emotional support and will love and care for you all the days of your life. Are you going to spend a lot of time with them?” so the subjects said “Yup, probably”.
It is obvious that if you emphasize the negative, subjects may try to emphasize the good to ease their minds. But does that say anything important? No.
Where Happiness Really Comes From
There are two types, or sources, of happiness.
- Happiness in the Moment: This is happiness that is specifically being felt at a moment simply from what you are doing. Eating that delicious donut might do it. Most people get this kind of happiness from being with friends or family. Talking with someone you like or love, playing games, whatever -- just being with people you care about.
Comparisons: Does your arm make you happy? Not usually. You don’t think about it. But when you see the struggles of an amputee you become grateful and happy for your own arm -- it would be so much worse without it. That comparison makes you happy, but without it, there is no happiness being generated by the presence of your arms.
Memories are a big source of happiness. When you go back in time to relive great experiences then the positive feelings come rushing through. You are comparing the awesome things you saw or did to having done nothing, and it makes you happy. Also, relived memories are often better than they were at the time because all the negative aspects are stripped away. Climbing Mount Everest is one of the most difficult and unhappy experiences while it’s going on, yet people do it to get the memories, which are super!
Families are a good source of both types of happiness. We get to be around the people we really love a lot of the time, so we’re generating tons of in-the-moment happiness. Yes, there are moments of relative unhappiness, but most of that family time should be happy time. The only problem is that it’s mundane. Few people will remember eating dinner with the family as one of their happiest, best memories (although I’ll bet that at your deathbed it will be at the top of mind for many, just like arms suddenly become very desirable in view of an amputee).
The second type is maybe a little less common or intense in families because families can’t do things as extremely as individuals. It is admittedly easier for a young single person to take a trip around the world or become a kick-boxer or whatever big thing than the middle-aged parents of two or three kids. However, it is really up to the parents and the situation. I go camping and touring and adventuring with my family often and I do activities on the side like run marathons to get the big memories. My kids and I generate super memories together like winter camping in the backyard, them surprising me by writing a book for me, jumping of the diving board with my kid for the first time, watching my kid perform a poetry reading in a big hall, so on and so forth.
Kids are work, they cause trouble, they cost money. Would I trade them for the money and work back? Nope. That’s all the answer you need.