Driving home before Mothers’ Day, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about how people with children were less happy than people without children. That caught my attention. A quick search on the internet did not find any current study but there was an article in Newsweek in July 7-14 2008 edition that cited several studies which all confirmed this seeming fact. For example, Robin Simon, a sociology professor from Florida State University, looked at data from the National Survey of Families and Households (n=13,000) and concluded: “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children.” Author Arthur C. Brooks reports “parents are about 7 percentage points less likely to report being happy than the childless.” If this is the case, then why do people have children?
From a research perspective, one might ask about what we mean by “happiness” and whether having children—or not—is the causal factor in people’s self-reported feeling of being happy. So, one issue is one of measurement. Back to jargon—what exactly do people mean by “happy” and how does a researcher operationalize it? The simplest way is to just ask, on a scale of some kind—“how happy are you?”
Another issue is whether “happy” even the right construct? Or does the decision to have a child reflect some other values—like a sense of meaning or purpose, or some connection to the larger web of connection, or about having someone to do farm chores or to have the experience of creating a family or…or….or….or…… What else?
Or maybe having children really is so demanding that people with children feel that their life is not truly their own, that there is not enough time in the day, or maybe a sense that the experience does not match their expectations—or…or….or….or…… What else? This stress may not really be about “happy.” Maybe the researchers need to ask deeper questions.
Of course, it is also true that these studies cannot determine if the people with children
would be even less happy if they did not have children.
It is possible that raising children is not about a permanent state of happiness but about moments of joy or bliss.
A major issue is the implied causality: that children and happiness are causality connected. Again, when any single factor is assumed to be a cause of some complex phenomenon, the warning sirens should go off. Happiness—however it gets defined and measured—is a complex emotional state influenced by many factors. And the new age folks tell us that ultimately happiness is an inside job.
Lastly, there is always a possibility that people with children are so busy that they are just a bit grumpy when they are interrupted to answer a phone survey asking if they are happy.
All that said, it is nonetheless possible that the research has discovered something that it is true even if it goes against a most cherished cultural belief.
Our own emotional responses are important—we are more likely to accept what we believe to be true without asking questions, and reject out of hand what we do not believe to be true .
If studying research methods serves any larger purpose it is simply this: to develop the ability to recognize our gut level responses and set them aside in order to look deeply at the research itself, to ask the tough questions about its credibility, and be willing to change our beliefs in the light of credible evidence.