There is a lot of research on this topic. I know later studies contradict earlier studies, but I'm not sure who to believe here. Wondering if anyone can help.

In case it isn't clear, the basic question is the effect of having children on happiness.

New Comment
30 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

For me having children feels "closer to being a terminal value" than happiness does. So saying "you should have Children because it makes you happy" sounds like "You should have a meaningful job and a loving relationship with your wife because it decreases your chances of having a heart attack by 8%!" or "You should avoid murdering people because it looks bad on your resume".

I can believe that that's true for a significant portion of humanity- that they would choose to have children even knowing it would be bad for their happiness in the long run. It isn't true for me, though, and there are large numbers of people for whom it isn't (or else childlessness in the West wouldn't have risen so much).

or else childlessness in the West wouldn't have risen so much

I think there are too many confounding factors to make that connection.


Having children fundamentally changes you, mentally. What may not have been a priority before, suddenly becomes a terminal value in itself once you bond with a little one. This is definitely something hard-wired into brains by evolution--ask any parent about their experience!

I think you're probably right about this (not based on first-hand experience of having a child, mind - I haven't), but I can't quite see what it's doing here. Is this meant to be some sort of objection to the comment you're replying to? It isn't obviously in tension with it.


I can believe that that's true for a significant portion of humanity

Just explaining why it is certainly true for the vast majority of people who actually have had children.


I looked into this a couple years ago and wrote up what I found:

Summary: the research isn't that good, is all correlational, and how parenting affects your happiness varies widely by demographics (age, gender, income). Neither a simple "parenting makes people happy" nor a "parenting makes people miserable" are justified.

Any time I see anyone with children, it makes me super happy that I don't have any. :) (Of course, my 1 data point is a very insignificant sample size).

I don't have the citation to hand, but IIRC there's research suggesting higher variance among parents is the most significant effect.

This fits to something Dan Savage (not a scientist but someone worth listening to on matters of family relationships) said:

Kids are like heroin, a little heroin addiction. When it's bad, you've never been so miserable, but when it's good you've never been so high.

Good to know, but does that research clarify whether happiness is overall higher or lower in the long run?

You mean on average? The studies I'm thinking of had small or no differences, but I'm pretty sure there are other results out there.

IIRC Ed Diener seemed to have a nuanced and balanced summary of the research in his book Happiness: Unlocking the Secrets of Psychological Wealth, I think in Chapter 4.

Care to summarize his summary?

Give me about 24-48 hours - I just put in a hold request at the local library, but I don't think I'm going to go pick up until tomorrow.

Sorry it took so long. Here's a brief summary:

  • Most studies don't show children to have a significant effect on the parents' happiness, either + or -.
  • We need to take into account that children have effects on different types of happiness. On the one hand parents get to enjoy all those wonderful evenings reading to their children, playing with them, seeing them grow, etc. On the other hand they can exhaust us in many different ways (even as little kids, forget about teenagers). And then there's the "side effects" such as having to earn a higher income to support them.
  • It seems to depend on the person, and which form of happiness you value more. If you value the type of happiness that children increase more than you value the type of happiness that they reduce, then go for it. Otherwise don't.
  • There may be a difference between men and women. One Danish study shows that a first child increases average happiness for women but not for men.
  • Having multiple children seems to decrease average overall happiness.
  • The teenage years are brutal for happiness, but once the kids move out then happiness goes back up (you get to play with the grandkids and let the parents deal with them).

Posting this here since I found it useful.

The pains and pleasures of parenting: when, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?

I think the really worth-while stuff is in the section "When Is Parenthood Associated With Well-Being?
Exploring Moderators" which starts on page 33.


Does a human life include more happiness than anti-happiness or non-happiness? Does the quality of happiness in a human life rate above the quality of anti-happiness or non-happiness? If the answers are yes, then a new human means more and better happiness (including the happiness of the new human). If the answers are no...

I don't think the research that can be done is sufficient. What you really want to know is the effect on happiness of having children on YOU where your category may be that you want children or it may be that you don't want children. I think the subtlety of estimating the happiness of people who wanted children but didn't get them against those who wanted children but did get them is too high. I think it is established by research that we rewrite our own history depending on how things go. So if you talk to childless people many of them will understate or even negate that they wanted children, because their childlessness will cause them to look for the good in wnat happened. And similarly on the other side, people who get children will include people who assume that since they got children they must have wanted them.

In my case, I deliberately set out, and spent years to get children. It seems unlikely to me that I would have been just as happy if I failed at my long term project, especially considering how much I like my children and how involving they are. I don't know if this subtlety is captured in any studies.


Why is rationalization of one's child-having status an issue for estimating their happiness? People are as happy as they are. Part of what determines that happiness is their rationalization of events and choices they've encountered. If childless people rationalize their situation and are just as happy as child-having people (with their own rationalizations), that looks like an answer, not a problem.

Personally, I'm not exactly thrilled with life, so I don't necessarily want to replicate that anyway. But at the same time it's not like I want humanity to die out. So ethically it seems complex.

Your attitude is constantly being bread out of the species, on the margin. People who want children, and to a lesser extent people who want to make children, define the future of the species. Anybody who wants to can opt out without either fear of the species disappearing, but also without the ability to cause the species to disappear by opting out .

I was thinking more about principles (ie, what would I want people to do) rather than what is actually likely to happen.

In my opinion, there are no principles that are not tied to outcomes. There is no point having a principle against doing X if it will never be the case that the people doing X are going to get a bad result.

Should there be a principle against homosexual sex because we don't want to run out of humans? I'd venture to say more bad than good arises from principled thinking like that. More utility is lost than is gained when principle is not tied to outcomes.

Humanity isn't going to die out anyway just because people with such an attitude decide to have no children, so I think you shouldn't worry about that.

It isn't, but Idiocracy while arguably not as bad as humanity dying out is still pretty bad.

It isn't, but Idiocracy while arguably not as bad as humanity dying out is still pretty bad.

If we devolve to the extent of no longer being able to cope with anything more complicated than chasing animals with sharp sticks, that would amount to humanity dying out.

It has been suggested that Homo floresiensis devolved from a bigger brained hominid -- the ultimate in idiocracy.

I don't think idiocracy follows from people who think that life kind of sucks not having children. There seem to be plenty of intelligent people who don't think so.

With 7 billion people on the planet, there are plenty of people smarter than you having children, so no worries.