Does having children make you happy? For real?

Recent studies question whether – really, truly – having children makes you happy. Even though it isn't all playgrounds and valedictorian addresses – taking the bad with the good can actually add up to happiness.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor
Recent studies question whether having children makes you happy. Even though it all playgrounds and valedictorian addresses – taking the bad with the good can actually add up to happiness. Here, Scot Webster, a real estate agent, with his wife Erica holding Ella, plays with their daughters Sophie, left, and Sydney, right, at a playground in Eagle, Color. in August 2010.

Do your children make you happy? Some research says no. I say yes.

My earth-shattering happiness formula is: To be happy, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
One of the puzzles that led me to devise this formula is the question: Do children make you happy? (For people who want children, I mean; some people are quite happy not having children.)

In the book "Stumbling on Happiness," Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that children don’t, in fact, make their parents happy.

He points to studies that show that marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of the first child and increases after the last child has left home, and to research that shows that a group of women found childcare only slightly more pleasant than housework.

So why do people think children bring happiness? Because, Dr. Gilbert argues, without the successful transmission of that inaccurate belief, society would crash – no one would have kids. Also, he says, when people think about having kids, they imagine the fun and success, but not the inconvenience and anxiety.

I thought a lot about Gilbert’s argument and the well-known studies he references. I certainly know from my own experience that the Big Man and I bicker much more now that we have kids, we have fewer fun adventures, and we have less time for each other. And having children is a source of worry, aggravation, expense, and inconvenience, not to mention all the colds I pick up and the chaos of toys that drives me crazy.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t accept the argument that children don’t bring happiness. Because they do! Not always in a moment-to-moment way, perhaps, but in some deeper way.

I struggled to figure out how to account for this paradox in my formula, and that’s how I came up with feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.
I imagine that if I didn’t have children, day to day, I might very well have more feeling good and less feeling bad – more time reading in bed, less time replacing the caps on magic markers. Which means I’d be happier, right?

Wrong. Children are essential to my feeling right. Being a parent, holding your baby in your arms, taking your place in the circle of life … it’s corny but it’s true. Most people just wouldn't feel right if they didn't have kids. (Again, I recognize that some people don't want kids; I'm not tackling the issue of their happiness here.)

Feeling right is an essential component of happiness. I don’t think that parents-to-be fool themselves that parenthood is all fun. They might not exactly anticipate what’s going to hit them with that first baby, but they know it’s not all playgrounds and valedictorian addresses.

There are times when feeling right means feeling bad. Consider a commute. Studies show (surprise!) that a bad commute is a real downer, and one to which we never adapt. But you might choose to have a bad commute in order to live in a neighborhood with good schools. Once your kids are in the good school, you’ll adapt to that circumstance, and it won’t be a source of feeling good, and the commute will make you feel bad every day. But it’s worth it, because you feel right about your trade-off.

Even though they may means less feeling good, and more feeling bad, I think children contribute mightily to happiness.

Also, they contribute to the atmosphere of growth that is important to happiness (and part of my formula). Seeing them learn, change, and grow boosts happiness.

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