An Important Decision

John Althouse Cohen discusses an article which asks whether having children makes you happy. He quotes the central bit:

"Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "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. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
I have not seen the survey, but the way professor Simon describes the findings, it appears that it avoided some of the problems you run into if you simply ask people how happy they are, so I'm going to take this at face value.

It isn't hard to think of reasons why having children should make you unhappy. It also isn't hard to think of reasons why having children should make you happy. The problem here is that the study comes accompanied by our old friend correlation is not causation. There must be a multitude of psychological and relational factors that influence the decision to have children, and it isn't hard to imagine that happier couples will be less likely to decide to have any. For example, you all know the stereotype that some couples will have children in order to save their marriage. There's a reason that stereotype exists. (Note that even "empty nest parents" seem less happy.)

Put differently, the problem is that you can't randomly assign couples to having or not having children. Even if you could, that would be meaningless, because making a couple that don't want one have a child seems most likely to make them unhappy - what we're interested in is what economists would call the marginal parents: those that can't decide whether to have children or not.

(Hey, I've just come up with a great research plan: Take a bunch of parents who have applied for an adoption and assign children to only half of them on a random basis, then study the couples' happiness over the years. I wonder whether I can convince the relevant authorities that that's a good idea.)

Another point is that we're talking about averages here. I'm pretty certain that having children makes some couples (or, for that matter, single parents) happier than they otherwise would have been, and some unhappier - it's not hard to come up with scenarios here. A major factor will be the child's personality.

Which brings us to behavioural genetics. There are genetic influences on personality - children aren't born as blank slates - so the best predictor for a child's personality are his or her parents' personalities. The correlations are by no means perfect, but that's the best guess you have. So when deciding whether to have children, people should maybe take a long hard look at themselves and their spouses and try to be as honest as they can to make a prediction about how their child will turn out to be. The most relevant time here is the child's childhood and adolescence, so my guess is that how parents' personalities were during childhood and adolescence is a better predictor than their current personalities, but I really don't know.

If that last guess is correct, I probably shouldn't have any children.

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