Friday, October 31, 2008

So much for parenthood

"Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t."


That's Paul Bloom in the November issue of the Atlantic.

Personally, I have several reservations about the article - partly because it seems to me that Bloom is stretching a lot of potentially unrelated research to fit his theory (I'm not sure, for instance, how the Milgram obedience studies "support the view that all of us contain many selves"); partly because the article doesn't sufficiently distinguish, in my opinion, between measures of central tendency and variation across the population (presumably there are people who are genuinely happy about having kids - I'd even hazard a guess that the extent of happiness / unhappiness associated with being a parent varies by gender, age and economic class); and partly because I would have liked to see a clearer definition of happiness (what does it mean, exactly, to be unhappy even though you think you're happy). But hey, who am I to argue with a professor of Psychology at Yale, particularly one who's basically saying what I've always suspected - that this whole celebration of parenthood thing is a gigantic swindle meant to reduce cognitive dissonance for people who've been suckered into having kids.

The November issue also includes a surprisingly sensible piece on blogging by Andrew Sullivan, but that's a whole other post.

6 comments:

km said...

Sullivan's piece is sensible indeed but he commits a classic faux pas right in the opening paragraph when he tries to offer the etymology of the word "blog" :)

Falstaff said...

km: Yes and no. While he's wrong about blog coming from Web log (rather than weblog) the broader etymology is correct (presumably weblog comes from web + log - at least that's what the OED says). So it's really a minor point, isn't it?

km said...

But of course it's a minor point.

Annamari said...

The piece on blogging: sensible and smart.
The theory on happiness and children…hmmm.
I do have an issue, though, with people who try to grab the idea of happiness from a psychological, sociological or theory of mind point of view.

First, happiness like “my soul hurts” grabs a concept that is metaphoric /metaphysic (see Wittgenstein). This is why you get happy martyrs and unhappy millionaires.

Second, let’s assume that you define happiness from the perspective of a ‘theory of being content’. The state of being content is not identified merely theory of mind but also from a social and cultural perspective (as you have well noted Falstaff). Our mind is modeled in direct interaction with the environment; therefore in a culture where children are considered “a gift of god” the state of being a childless could cause major distress, while raising a child might be seen as a daily blessing (of course that is a ‘little bit’ of exaggeration…) Not to mention social status: we all remember what happened with the wives of the king that wanted so much a son…

And, btw, Fodor is so obsolete…

Falstaff said...

annamari: So many problems. Personally, what I wonder about it is how the counterfactual is defined. Would these people really have been happier if they hadn't had children? How can we know? How can they know? And what about selection bias? Are people who have kids unhappy? Or do unhappy people have kids?

Annamari said...

Ah! But that's what I wanted to say:
You cannot define it for qualitative concepts such as happiness. You got to be able to quantify it – like wealth (defined as retirement funds, investments, savings, bonds etc. etc). How could you quantify happiness?