Having kids makes us less happy, says happiness expert

Jordana Divon
Shine On
February 27, 2013

At last! The formula for happiness. But if you're a parent, you might not like the sounds of it.

According to Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert, you’re pretty much doomed to be less happy than your married-but-childless counterparts.

Gilbert, a psychology professor and author of the book, Stumbling on Happiness, delivered the unsettling news at a recent conference in Sydney.

During his talk, which he playfully entitled “Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You,” he drew upon extensive research to conclude that the happiest folks are married, make between $50,000 to $75,000 per year and have approximately zero offspring.

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"Figures show that married people are in almost every way happier than unmarried people – whether they are single, divorced, cohabiting," he tells the crowd of fellow academics and happiness professionals.

He says expecting a child can increase your happiness, but that all nosedives after the first diaper change.

"Children do seem to increase happiness [while] you're expecting them, but as soon as you have them, trouble sets in," he says. "People are extremely happy before they have children and then their happiness goes down, and it takes another big hit when kids reach adolescence.”

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Married people also reported greater levels of life satisfaction and overall health.

“They are healthier, live longer, have more sex,” he says, adding that people in unhappy or abusive marriages are the exception and they should probably hightail it out of there ASAP.

But parents, there's a light at the end of the tunnel: Gilbert says your happiness will return to its pre-spawn levels as soon as the nest empties out.

He also cautions that the research should not deter people from having children, nor does it take into account the love they feel for them.

Of course, you can say your children are the best thing that ever happened to you and you can’t imagine life without them. And contrary to what the experts say, your joy reached infinite proportion once little people started inhabiting your house. Anyone can anecdotally refute the evidence.

Context, however, is the clincher. A double income has become a necessity instead of a luxury for most Canadian families and the never-ending juggling act of balancing work and domestic life, coupled with the exorbitant costs of daycare, babysitting and childcare (for those who can even afford it) have transformed family life into an endurance test.

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Remember sleeping in on weekends, having a leisurely brunch, doing whatever you wanted for the rest of the day – maybe working out or perusing a new exhibit at the museum – then dressing up and checking out a new restaurant for dinner? Neither do most parents of young children.

At least one expert agrees that these stressful factors contribute to the decrease in happiness which Gilbert speaks about.

“From an evolutionary point of view we are programmed to procreate. It would not make sense for having children to make us unhappy," Richard Tunney, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham tells the Telegraph. "However, in countries like Britain, having children is hard – your finances are hit, childcare in this country is appalling and for women especially, their careers suffer.”

“That is not the fault of having children per se, but of society.”

Just keep in mind that great rewards often come from greater sacrifices, even if that means two decades of decreased happiness. Because as the less sophisticated but equally truthful theory goes: Grandchildren are your reward for having children.

Well, the saying is a little less PC than that, but the sentiment is the same.

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