Against Nature

Why is it that some conservatives get hung up on the idea that certain forms of behavior are “unnatural” and thus to be stamped out with extreme prejudice, but will, in the same breath, praise to the heavens our peculiar form of extended market-based social organization, which is as artificial and “unnatural” as one could like? If you want to put your anti-buggery together with cave-living, then, well, that's OK by me. But if “unnatural” is an objection, then it applies to almost all the benefits of modern life.

  • muirgeo

    Indigenous people are said to have been happier.

    Jefferson’s admiration for indigenous wisdom in terms of happiness
    led him to exclaim: “I am convinced that those societies as the Indians
    which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely
    greater degree of happiness than those who live under European
    governments”. Jefferson had seen, likewise, that: “Native Americans are
    not submitted to any laws, any coercive power and shadow of
    government. The only controls are their manners, and the moral sense of
    right and wrong. . An offence against these is punished by contempt, by
    exclusion from society…Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem,
    crimes are very rare among them” (Johansen, 1982).

    http://www.bhutanstudies.org.bt/admin/pubFiles/23-Rethinking.pdf

    But who of us would give up our modern lives and material well being just to be happier?

    Oddly enough life isn’t just about happiness and material things. Its far more nuanced then that. My quarter million dollar kids indeed have brought much nuance to my world. If nothing else I’d have to say it is for them that I argue for a better future ( or at least what I think will be a better future for them).

  • Will, are there panel studies of happiness testing this hypothesis? I think its clear that parents are (very slightly) less happy than those without children, but are we sure its the kids causing the unhappiness?

    Often its the case cross-sectional results don’t jive with time-series results (e.g. the link between inequality and growth) and its a mistake to think that variance across groups explains variance within groups (e.g. IQ and wages across countries and within).

    The point is that its easy to imagine unhappy people become parents at higher rates. There’s movies about it and we all have that friend that has at least speculated that having kids would save their marriage.

  • A well known ad trades on a countervailing intuition.

  • Could there be problems with averages? For instance, could there people that are happy with kids and unhappy without, while other people are happy without and unhappy with kids and then somehow because of the ratio between people with kids and people without, that skews the analysis? I’m just trying wiggle out of the unintuitive result.

  • You make it sound as if all parents have no idea what they’re getting into. Of course all of the work and lack of free time are going decrease “happiness” but, as Caplan has pointed out, 91-95% of people say they would do it all over again. Children become more interesting as they age.

    How unhappy did you make your parents?

  • Also divorce rates are pretty high and it could be that couples that are heading towards divorce with kids have a rougher time than couples in a similar situation without kids. However, it seems hard to control for this because you’d have to compare couple that will never divorce but this is not a “stopping time” (probability jargon).

  • Will, it seems likely that a part of the source of the unease about the statement that children reduce their parents happiness can be linked to how you are using the word “happiness.” As you allude to in the this post, rather than “happiness” being and aggregate measure of how good someone’s life is, you are using it in a narrower sense. You might say more about how you define happiness as distinct from satisfacion, etc. and why you use that definition.

  • I guess I have very little confidence in any of these studies because I doubt that they measure what we most care about.

    My goal is not to live a life that will generate the most positive feedback on a survey of my satisfaction and emotional state.

    I want to live a life of accomplishment and great satisfaction much of the time. This might make me a little more likely to be tired and grumpy when I’m approached with a survey, but that’s not a strong indication that I’ve chosen badly.

    I doubt these surveys are taken with parents as they witness their child’s first words or steps.

  • It seems to me that the fact that having kids does not increase subjective well-being (SWB) says more about the limitations of SWB than about the merits of having kids. This is an instance where revealed preference provides a better indicator of what people want from life than measurement of SWB.

  • Jen

    Sure there’s a happiness cost to having kids. I’m worried about one of my teens contantly and the other one isn’t particularly nice to me unless he wants something. So what?

    As the survey points out, parents have more purpose and meaning. That’s the trade-off. Personally, purpose and meaning are much more important to me than maxing my happiness. In fact, the purpose I gained when I became a parent has arguably been the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I wouldn’t trade it in for more loud sex in the middle of the day/not worrying about who is going to pick up the kids from daycare increases to happiness for all the money in the world.

    And though you are pointing out that kids = less happiness, you kid of gloss over no kids = less purpose and meaning in order to call losses to happiness a “steep cost” without pointing out that purpose and meaning never gained is also a “steep cost.” There’s a trade-off to either choice.

    But yes, our culture does romanticize parenthood to sickening degrees.

  • DJ

    As evidenced by your commenters, there is a knee-jerk reaction by parents to defend their choice if someone even advances the notion that they might be less happy than childless people. I don’t believe anyone is advocating the position that because you experience less happiness, your life does not have as much worth. The concepts are separate.

    I have two boys under the age of three. The first year living with two was brutal. The mental effort required to simply keep them from killing themselves or one another is exhausting. I am unquestionably less happy overall than I was before I had children. However, while the overall time I spend each day being unhappy has dramatically increased, the happy moments I experience daily that my children are directly responsible for has intensified to a degree I did not think was possible.

  • John Thacker

    Not all values move in one direction and it is a mark of maturity to be able to admit that some of the things we value most comes at a sometimes steep cost.

    Indeed it is. One might even try to have an open mind about whether cars really are subsidized and to what degree, even if one loves biking and hates cars. On the other hand, one might simply ignore all the research and assume that all the other libertarians who have studied the issue and written papers are motivated by their biases, but not oneself.

  • name

    A big part of the problem is that the concept of “happiness” being used here is shallow. The kind of “happiness” that can be quantified using social-science techniques … as Nietzsche put it, “only the Englishman desires that.” (Context required, but this is a blog comment. so…)

    Or, as John Zorn put it, “happiness is for yuppies and children.”

    Raising children is, for the parent, a matter of fulfillment as a human being for which the contemporary American notion of “happiness” (gadgets, channel surfing, toned abs. etc.) is inadequate.

  • john

    I agree with name above and would add: I’d want to see the research. WW seems to be drawing many conclusions from a single study that may be flawed. Card and Kruger also published counter-intuitive research.

  • I’m a parent x3, and I’ll actually agree – based on a small anectodal sample, my friends with no kids are much less stressed, much more adventurous (much, much, much) and generally live a life of dual incomes, frequent (and often kinky) sex [she likes to blab about it], lots of cool gadgets and toys and virtually no demands on their time other than work.

    There’s no doubt I’m more stressed, more aggravated, more constrained and annoyed and pestered and beleaguered by my kid-filled life. But, as the others studies show, I would absolutely do it all again, in a heartbeat. There is a “grace” to having children, to having this responsibility.

    I suspect it’s somewhat like the sacrifices one makes to feel closer to one’s religion – the sacrifices are hard, and the difficulty is part of what makes the situation feel special.

    I feel special, and I’d rather feel special than have lots of gadgets, toys and unconstrained free time.

  • johnbr, That sounds about right to me. There are tradeoffs and often they’re worth it.

  • I don’t know what parents you know who aren’t willing to admit this – all the ones I know bitch and complain plenty about having kids.

    Having kids is like marriage itself in that there is a recognition that you’ve gained a lot, but also that you’ve sacrificing and lost a lot. Most parents, because of the bond and sense of purpose you mention, consider it worth the trade-off, but I don’t know many who won’t readily admit that they wish they were getting more sleep, that their kids cost them a bundle, that they have intense fantasies of being able to just go to whatever restaurant they want and eat a meal at their leisure, etc.

    Or did I misunderstand what you were talking about?

  • Alan Gunn

    I wish we could get this message across to teenage girls, who all too often think that having a baby will create someone to love them. I know kids whose mother realized, at the age of 21, that being single and having four kids was a drag, so she basically gave them to child protective services.

    I think my own kid (now 25) is terrific. But I can still remember every parent’s happiest moment–when the kid falls asleep.

  • drdanb

    I think you touched close to the core: “We yearn to love our choices, and our lives, with whole hearts. But to do so is to lie to ourselves about ourselves, to close our eyes and cover our ears like children to the profundity of what we have given up.”

    Might it be that we lie to ourselves about more than just ourselves…e.g. our very reason for existence? And that may be why we lie to ourselves about ourselves.

    That being said – It seems you’re raising the question that there may be some element of survey-taker bias evident in these results?

    “ I really AM happy living a life that’s all about me.”

    Those tending towards a more self-centered way of life – sounds almost hedonistic – as johnbr stated it: “my friends with no kids are much less stressed, much more adventurous (much, much, much) and generally live a life of dual incomes, frequent (and often kinky) sex [she likes to blab about it], lots of cool gadgets and toys and virtually no demands on their time other than work.”

    Busy…but I would venture to say…Because relationship at the deepest level – (pro)creation – is missing, family without children becomes…empty (not fulfilling). That’s why you have to stay really busy at it – You’ve got to be doing something to overcome that fundamental “It is not good for man to be alone.”

    Try this on:

    1. Families with children exist for a reason – either because people need to be reproduced (survival of the species) or for some other (external) cause – e.g. “It is not good for man to be alone.”

    2. If families with children have an explanation for their existence, the explanation is that it was not good for man to be alone (he requires relationship to be happy / complete).

    3. Families with children exist for reasons other than mere teenage mistakes, rape, bad choices by thinking adults who (should) be content alone or (mere) survival of the species.

    4. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the family with children is that it was (and is) “Good.”

    It seems to me that Eve – and her reproductive powers – exist for a reason higher (and happier) than mere procreation.

    – Relationship.

    Families with kids are work, but – Done right, are “Good.” Someone far greater than me said it first.

    So I agree with Jen who said: “As the survey points out, parents have more purpose and meaning.”

    I know I value the relationships in my family (2 daughters & spouse) as near the very core of my happiness – OK, yeah, in my view the guy who invented family by enabling reproduction and saying “It is not good…” gets the primary credit & IS the core of successful relationships.

    But, of course, I recognize that there is an opposing view – children are (merely) a happiness-limiting survival-of-the-species necessity. Somehow the inherent self-centeredness of that view has always fallen short of the mark, that’s why I agree that there is likely an underlying survey-taker bias.

    Perhaps, we should encourage people to look not (merely) within themselves…but beyond themselves…for happiness?

    Because it is “good.”

  • ibc

    On the one hand: childless == happy-dappy non-pappy.

    On the other: post-child == a transcendent love hitherto undreamed of.

    That’s a tough one… 😉

  • ibc

    I have two boys under the age of three. The first year living with two was brutal. The mental effort required to simply keep them from killing themselves or one another is exhausting. I am unquestionably less happy overall than I was before I had children.

    I’d be interested to see a study that was corrected for the *number* of kids. My guess is that happiness is inversely proportional to the number of kids.

  • kim

    There is no reason that someone cannot feel deep love without a child. Life for the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa has never included children. Yet these two, and people like them, have made our world infinitely better, and there is no question of their capacity for love.

    The only reason a child would give you more insight into love is if you had not ever explored your own capacity for compassion and love BEFORE having a child.

  • JerrySteinberg

    I believe that it’s a matter of (to coin a phrase) “different strokes for different folks,” and that different lifestyles make different people happy.

    My wife and I are in our 60s, and all of our kids have four legs (two dogs and a cat). We have absolutely no regrets about not having children, whatsoever, and wouldn’t change a thing.

    I just wish society would tell teenagers the truth (the “dark side of the moon” as I often call it) about parenthood. Give them ALL the information, and let them make an EDUCATED decision whether or not to have kids. Instead, we seem to glorify parenthood, and kids fall — unthinkingly — into it.

    At least, if they knew what they were in for, they wouldn’t be so shocked when it hit them.

    Many parents are shocked when they discover that their infants don’t keep the same wake-sleep schedule that they’re used to; that their toddlers have a propensity for finding ways to hurt themselves the moment the parent looks the other way; that their teenagers are not the sweet, obedient, gentle, respectful children they used to be; that, despite lectures to the contrary, their teenagers are still quite curious (and cavalier) about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs; that their teenagers have “no fear” when they are behind the wheel of a car, diving into dangerous waters, or committing a crime. They are perplexed about proper nutrition of children of all ages, and discipline seems to frustrate most parents. They are also stunned when they discover how much time, energy and money are required to raise a child properly.

    I am convinced that there should be a “LICENSE TO PARENT.” Courses and tests (both theoretical and practical), created by and given by experienced and successful parents, teachers, nurses, daycare workers, doctors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, family counsellors, police officers, etc. would have to be taken, with at least 80% needed to pass in order to receive your License To Parent (could you justify any less?). Such courses should be mandatory in every high school in the country. Even though, in a democracy, we can’t really prevent people from making babies irresponsibly, such courses would, at the very least, make people more informed, more responsible, and possibly less likely to make babies without sufficient forethought. It might even convince a few people that parenthood wasn’t right for them, and would save them, their potential children, and society at large from the catastrophic consequences of poor parenting.

    Parenting is a serious responsibility. It is the hardest job in the world to do, yet it’s the easiest job to get — no education, no training, no experience with kids (of any age), no tests, no interviews, no probation period, no periodic evaluations, and hardly any risk of being fired.

    It is the most irrevocable decision one will ever make in one’s life. It should be seen as a privilege, not a right — it shouldn’t be automatic or accidental, and it should certainly not be taken lightly. Children are too precious to be created without making a careful, conscious decision about them. Unfortunately, creating a child takes very little effort and even less intelligence. To be a good parent, however, is to achieve one of the most difficult and important goals of modern life.

    More time should be spent considering children than conceiving them.

    Jerry Steinberg
    Founding Non-Father of NO KIDDING!
    The international social club for childless and childfree couples and singles
    http://www.nokidding.net; info@nokidding.net

  • JerrySteinberg

    I believe that it’s a matter of (to coin a phrase) “different strokes for different folks,” and that different lifestyles make different people happy.

    My wife and I are in our 60s, and all of our kids have four legs (two dogs and a cat). We have absolutely no regrets about not having children, whatsoever, and wouldn’t change a thing.

    I just wish society would tell teenagers the truth (the “dark side of the moon” as I often call it) about parenthood. Give them ALL the information, and let them make an EDUCATED decision whether or not to have kids. Instead, we seem to glorify parenthood, and kids fall — unthinkingly — into it.

    At least, if they knew what they were in for, they wouldn’t be so shocked when it hit them.

    Many parents are shocked when they discover that their infants don’t keep the same wake-sleep schedule that they’re used to; that their toddlers have a propensity for finding ways to hurt themselves the moment the parent looks the other way; that their teenagers are not the sweet, obedient, gentle, respectful children they used to be; that, despite lectures to the contrary, their teenagers are still quite curious (and cavalier) about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs; that their teenagers have “no fear” when they are behind the wheel of a car, diving into dangerous waters, or committing a crime. They are perplexed about proper nutrition of children of all ages, and discipline seems to frustrate most parents. They are also stunned when they discover how much time, energy and money are required to raise a child properly.

    I am convinced that there should be a “LICENSE TO PARENT.” Courses and tests (both theoretical and practical), created by and given by experienced and successful parents, teachers, nurses, daycare workers, doctors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, family counsellors, police officers, etc. would have to be taken, with at least 80% needed to pass in order to receive your License To Parent (could you justify any less?). Such courses should be mandatory in every high school in the country. Even though, in a democracy, we can’t really prevent people from making babies irresponsibly, such courses would, at the very least, make people more informed, more responsible, and possibly less likely to make babies without sufficient forethought. It might even convince a few people that parenthood wasn’t right for them, and would save them, their potential children, and society at large from the catastrophic consequences of poor parenting.

    Parenting is a serious responsibility. It is the hardest job in the world to do, yet it’s the easiest job to get — no education, no training, no experience with kids (of any age), no tests, no interviews, no probation period, no periodic evaluations, and hardly any risk of being fired.

    It is the most irrevocable decision one will ever make in one’s life. It should be seen as a privilege, not a right — it shouldn’t be automatic or accidental, and it should certainly not be taken lightly. Children are too precious to be created without making a careful, conscious decision about them. Unfortunately, creating a child takes very little effort and even less intelligence. To be a good parent, however, is to achieve one of the most difficult and important goals of modern life.

    More time should be spent considering children than conceiving them.

    Jerry Steinberg
    Founding Non-Father of NO KIDDING!
    The international social club for childless and childfree couples and singles
    http://www.nokidding.net; info@nokidding.net

  • david

    I’d like to see you apply your happiness acumen not to the decision to-have or not-to-have kids, but to this:
    http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/24/the-other-home-equity-crisis/

  • to childes give up the happiness
    to giving toys and share the
    all those things the kid
    grow up in natural way

  • This post is great for parents and children as well.. I can relate in the topic.. Most children doesn’t appreciate their parent’s sacrifices they don’t know their parents are getting hurt.. Parents are great they giving all we need, taking care of us so love our parents and never hurt them.

  • you did a great job with tis post of yours, keep up the good work

  • It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life.;)

  • The beginning of parenthood and watching your kids grow brings in an immeasurable amount of happiness. And what’s even better is studies such as this one persists on making the happiness consistent. But of course, it is always up to us if we are up to the task.

  • Indeed. The bliss that it brings is utterly unexplainable. Sure parenthood is a daunting and energy expending task, but watching your kids grow into their fruitful selves is priceless.