April 5, 2009

Happiness Is Finding a Pencil

Justin Katz

I find this discouraging, although probably not for the reason one would suspect:

Children do not bring happiness. In fact more often they seem to bring unhappiness. That is the conclusion of one academic study after the next — and there are so many that it makes one wonder if researchers kept trying, hoping for a different result.

What's bothersome isn't that the hard work and substantial expense of being a parent puts a damper on one's sense of happiness; anybody who has children or knows people who have children should expect such a result. Rather, it's disquieting that not only is the finding presented as a surprise, but it's presented as if it ought to make procreation inexplicable. Raising children is among those experiences in life that we undertake because it is part of living — part of what Charles Murray refers to as "a life well lived."

A society that loses its ability to value the rich experience of being human may perceive itself to be more satisfied for a short time, as it rolls forward on the momentum of the health of previous generations, but it will surely decline and lose its feeling of happiness in the process.

However, because I'm not persuaded that one can tease apart demographic categories as these studies do, I'd suggest that it would be a mistake to see child rearing as a socially necessary drain on our individual well-being. Consider that marriage brings the greatest non-income increase in happiness, a finding that holds true even if we factor in parenthood's negative effect. (It's worth mentioning, of course, that the decrease resulting from children would also include the surveys of divorced parents, who would seem more likely to be adversely affected by the responsibilities of parenthood than married parents. There may also be an explanation somewhere in this breakdown for the fact that two children decrease happiness less than one.)

In other words, if we take the family form handed down to us through generations of trial and error, in which children and marriage are held to be inextricably linked, with parenthood and espousal standing as mutually reinforcing components of a person's identity, we find ourselves happier and our society healthier. If we lose faith in our instinctive understanding of what a full life should encompass, we will embark on a selfish path toward general misery.

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"Marriage brings the greatest non-income
increase in happyness"

Justin, a great argument FOR gay marriage

Posted by: Jim at April 5, 2009 10:18 PM

Not if erasing the inherent linkage between marriage and the ability of the spouses to create children does more harm than the change does good. One need look no farther than the Iowa Supreme Court's statement that children don't need a mother and a father to see that it would.

The point is this: Raising children is difficult and requires dedication. Men and women can create children almost without intending to do so. Therefore, society needs a mechanism to encourage child bearing and rearing to be done within the context of marriage. If marriage isn't centrally about joining husband and wife with the presumption that they will be father and mother, then the fact that a man and woman are a father and mother becomes irrelevant to whether they're husband and wife.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 5, 2009 10:39 PM

So does this mean that hetero marriages between a man and woman who either choose not to or are incapable of having children should be illegal, too?

Posted by: rhody at April 6, 2009 12:38 PM

A man and woman who have no children have no effect on the basic understanding of the relationship: Human beings come in two sexes that, when paired, tend to create new human beings. The link is intrinsic, and the fact that a particular couple does not (or cannot) fulfill that biological reality doesn't change that. Even culturally, the effect of a choice to remain childless has effect only on close associates; one cannot tell the parents from the non-parents at the local mall (for example). And when it's not a choice, it's understood to be regrettable.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 6, 2009 7:20 PM
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