Happiness and The Parent Trap

Are parents more miserable than non-parents? It depends on how we measure happiness.

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For most of the Western world, parents are statistically less happy than non-parents. On every happiness measure!

So why do so many people have kids?

Becoming a parent is, for most people, a major goal in life, and something most people believe will bring a lot of joy. However, there are a big discrepancy between what we believe is good for us and what is, in fact, good for us — and parenthood is one of the greatest examples of this.

Several studies show that parents are more miserable than non-parents with the exception of a few countries such as Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Spain. On the other hand parental misery is very widespread in the US, Australia and UK.

This applies to both women and men, even though it seems that women experience a little spike of joy prior to birth, or as Professor Dan Gilbert puts it: “Women seem to get a little bump from the little bump as they are approaching birth, but pretty soon join their partners down in the valley of despair”.

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All this is very counterintuitive, and if you tell this to any parent they will likely loudly disagree. Kids cost a lot, and we all tend to love things that cost us a lot. This weird cognitive trick was proven by Nobel Prize winner and best-selling author Prof. Daniel Kahneman, who also found that women find childcare almost as fun as “cleaning the bathroom”.

Dan Gilbert tries to explain this paradox by using 3 activities: buying cashmere socks, taking heroin and watching baseball (watch Dan’s short talk on happiness to find out why).

It’s important to note that these results refer to people’s day-to-day happiness and their overall life satisfaction, but these are only two of the three key dimension of happiness. What parents often seem to have more of is eudaimonic happiness — a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life.

The case of parenthood proves the importance of taking a holistic approach to happiness. Some life choices may include a trade-off where you sacrifice a bit of joy for a bit of purpose.

In the end it comes down to which kind of happiness you seek in life.

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