Studies Show Kids May Not Be 'Bundles of Joy' Most people assume that having children makes parents happy. But the research doesn't necessarily show that, says a Florida State University sociologist who has surveyed parents and childless adults.
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Studies Show Kids May Not Be 'Bundles of Joy'

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Studies Show Kids May Not Be 'Bundles of Joy'

Studies Show Kids May Not Be 'Bundles of Joy'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The question is, do kids make you happy? Not other people's kids, we know they're miserable little no-necked monsters. I mean your own kids, your flesh and blood, your pride and joy, your - according to new studies, your Sturm und Drang. Researchers and happiness experts have been busy studying the correlation between children and happiness, while these experts' spouses and nannies are home assuring the children, no, Mommy doesn't resent you. You're just not empirically justifiable. A whole bunch of kids in happiness studies were rounded up and summarized in the latest issue of Newsweek Magazine. The piece is called "True or False: Having Kids Makes You Happy." I guess we kind of ruined it, but we will at least credit it with another BPP feature...

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PESCA: Ripped From the Headlines. All right, there you go. Florida State University's Robin Simon is a sociology professor who's conducted several parenting studies. Her research features prominently in that Newsweek piece and she joins us now. Hello, Robin.

Dr. ROBIN SIMON (Sociology, Florida State University): Hello.

PESCA: So, you know, OK, first, I guess we know what you found, because true or false, the answer is that having kids supposedly doesn't make you happy. But how'd you find it? I mean, how do you even study this?

Dr. SIMON: Well, I used data that were collected on about 13,000 adults that were asked a number of questions about the frequency in the previous week they felt, you know, certain emotions...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. SIMON: Like happiness, joy, over joy, as well as how frequently in the previous week they felt things like sadness, hopelessness, loss of appetite, couldn't be interested in, you know, in things...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. SIMON: And so, it's fairly common in social science to ask about the frequency with which individuals experience particular emotions.

PESCA: And people with kids experienced - what? Less happiness? Or more depression? Or both?

Dr. SIMON: They definitely experienced more depression. They - people with kids, all parents, that is to say including people with kids who are living at home, young children who are living at home, as well as empty-nest parents, surprisingly, when you combine all kinds of parents in the United States, and ask them, you know, if they experience these serious emotions, what you find is that they report significantly more feelings of depression than people who have never had kids.

PESCA: Does it correlate to the number of kids, or just having a kid?

Dr. SIMON: Well, we actually didn't look at the number of kids, though I suspect that it does, because other sociological studies have found that the more kids one has the more feelings of depression.

PESCA: Now, I know that anecdotal evidence means nothing. I mean, a researcher can say, hey, we've lost, you know, 10,000 jobs last month, and it doesn't matter if that guy meets 30 people saying, I just got a new job. I mean, the evidence is the evidence. But you must get tons of people saying, but you've never met Cassie, Milo, Ike, or Nathaniel, you know?

Dr. SIMON: Well, actually, there's been, of course, a number of interesting responses to the Newsweek article. If you go online, I think there must be over 1,000 comments of - from people saying that actually I speak to their experience, that, you know, they do have, you know, sensed a feeling of blue, you know, lonely, sad, with having kids, and that they're afraid to admit it, because it runs so counter to our cultural belief that children make you happy.

PESCA: Do you think if there was kind of a greater acceptance that having children is a mixed bag, that somehow most of this depression could be addressed? I mean, the fact that you can't even, you know, admit it out loud, maybe it could exacerbate that?

Dr. SIMON: Yeah, I do think so. I think that's part of our cultural belief, is that we, you know, we derive all this joy from kids, and so it's really hard for people who don't feel this to admit it. But I think, more importantly, people ought to understand where this unhappiness comes from.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. SIMON: And I would say it's not from their kids, per se. I would say that it comes from the social conditions in which contemporary parents parent.

PESCA: In other words, 200...?

Dr. SIMON: We do not have family-friendly policies. We don't allow people, I believe, as a society, to reap the full joys of parenthood.

PESCA: Parents are more on their own than they ever have been in human history.

Dr. SIMON: They are more on their own. We have very few social supports when it comes to parenthood as, you know, anybody looking at the picture could easily imagine.

PESCA: There was one figure in the Newsweek article, I don't know if it comes for you - from you or another researcher, but they quoted a seven-percent deficit in happiness. Is that right?

Dr. SIMON: No, I saw that figure. I had no idea where that came from.

PESCA: OK, fine.

Dr. SIMON: That did not come from my study.

PESCA: That was my question. And another part, another fact that jumped out at me was from a Harvard professor who says that...

Dr. SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: Parents are happier sleeping and grocery shopping than they are when spending time with their kids.

Dr. SIMON: Well, you know, Dan Gilbert's stuff, he's fabulous. You know, think about it. I mean, kids, particularly when they're young, they're very stressful. I mean, there's still a lot of work involved. And so, I think that there are very many positive things that come out of having kids. But it's a mixed bag, you know, because they are demanding. They are a responsibility, and it's a responsibility that doesn't end. Going to the grocery store, you know, you don't have to worry about kids pulling stuff off the shelf and breaking them.

PESCA: Well, it's all - to me, it's just a comparison of a short-term sensation, where everything is designed - you know, the Muzak is there...

Dr. SIMON: Right.

PESCA: And the lighting is supposed to be pleasant, and all the packaging. When you look at the packages, it's like, ooh, this'll taste good, or this will improve my life.

Dr. SIMON: Right, right.

PESCA: As opposed to some sort of more baseline, long-term satisfaction. I don't even think the two are remotely comparable. One's almost - you know, they're almost affecting different centers of the brain, even.

Dr. SIMON: That could very well be. Yeah, one is a very-short-term thing. I mean, when you go to the grocery store, you know, it could be viewed as an escape actually from household obligations, including obligations to children. So, yeah, one is a much more short-term thing, and the other is a more enduring kind of sense of strain and satisfaction. I mean, this - my research does not speak to the satisfactions that parents derive, and they're enormous. Most people would not tell you that they would do it any other way.

PESCA: That is the thing. I just think that maybe even asking about happiness - to me, happiness is a fleeting sensation, and satisfaction is long term. And it's almost like, you know, asking someone who works at a very demanding job, but makes a lot of money, versus somebody who works, you know, a few hours, and you know, a teenager or something, what are you happier at? The person who puts a lot of time in also gets, if all goes well, gets a lot out of it.

Dr. SIMON: Yeah. No, I see your point. The thing is this that, you know, you could think of happiness as fleeting, but you can also think of joy and, you know, also the sort of upbeat asset as a more enduring quality in - of people's, you know, emotional experiences. So, you know, I do think it's tapping something that's more ongoing than fleeting.

PESCA: Also as far as methodology, I was wondering if you looked at the median person in terms of happiness, or the average, just because there might be some people for whom having children is just so miserable, that it throws off the whole average.

Dr. SIMON: Mm. Yeah, not so much the case. I mean, I look at statistical averages, and I don't think that these are outliers. I think that this is a very common pattern, that people just report more feelings of depression. Now, you've got to keep in mind that parents report more depression than non-parents, because they have this social role over which - you know, that they worry about. They worry about their kids.

PESCA: Right, it's responsibility.

Dr. SIMON: It's responsibility.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. SIMON: And it's relentless, and our society does very little to alleviate the stress of parenthood. That's my view of it. I think that parents would derive a lot more satisfaction from a having kids if we had the kinds of social supports. I mean, even healthcare, I mean, not having healthcare is a major source of stress for parents...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. SIMON: Let alone, you know, the astronomical financial cost of raising kids.

PESCA: The last question I have is...

Dr. SIMON: Yeah.

PESCA: A ton of research shows that the key to long-term happiness is to have tons of connections in your life.

Dr. SIMON: Exactly right, social networks.

PESCA: Right, social networks, so don't kids add to those? Maybe not when you're...

Dr. SIMON: They do and they don't. The findings are a little mixed in this regard. My colleague, Melissa Milkie, finds that when people have kids, their social networks improve. And I know in my own case, my social networks have certainly increased when I had kids.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. SIMON: You know people who have other kids and you hang out with them, and, you know, interact with them socially. On the other hand, some other research, Linsbeth Levin, who is a professor at Duke - the former person is at the University of Maryland - she found that actually people with kids have smaller social networks than people who don't have kids, and that's understandable, too.

PESCA: Because they don't get out as much.

Dr. SIMON: They don't get out.

PESCA: Robin Simon, professor of sociology at Florida State University. Thank you, Robin.

Dr. SIMON: Thank you.

PESCA: And next on the show, something else that's supposed to make you happy, beer. But it doesn't always, but sometimes it does. This is the Bryant Park project from NPR News.

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