Ok, ok. I admit my last post on the children and happiness issue didn’t, in the end, add much to the debate. Economists that have studied the issue have found negative (and small) effects of children on happiness and they’ve done so without including controls for squishily measured variables ((But the analysis is still valid in general!)).
But I’m still skeptical. Until I see a good mechanism to explain this result, I’ll remain so. Here’s an old post by Dan Gilmore that addresses why my intuition might be mistaken:
First, when something makes us happy we are willing to pay a lot for it, which is why the worst Belgian chocolate is more expensive than the best Belgian tofu. But that process can work in reverse: when we pay a lot for something, we assume it makes us happy, which is why we swear to the wonders of bottled water and Armani socks. The compulsion to care for our children was long ago written into our DNA, so we toil and sweat, lose sleep and hair, play nurse, housekeeper, chauffeur and cook, and we do all that because nature just won’t have it any other way. Given the high price we pay, it isn’t surprising that we rationalize those costs and conclude that our children must be repaying us with happiness.
Second, if the Red Sox and the Yankees were scoreless until Manny Ramirez hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, you can be sure that Boston fans would remember it as the best game of the season. Memories are dominated by their most powerful—and not their most typical—instances. Just as a glorious game-winning homer can erase our memory of 8 1/2 dull innings, the sublime moment when our 3-year-old looks up from the mess she is making with her mashed potatoes and says, “I wub you, Daddy,” can erase eight hours of no, not yet, not now and stop asking. Children may not make us happy very often, but when they do, that happiness is both transcendent and amnesic.
Third, although most of us think of heroin as a source of human misery, shooting heroin doesn’t actually make people feel miserable. It makes them feel really, really good—so good, in fact, that it crowds out every other source of pleasure. Family, friends, work, play, food, sex—none can compete with the narcotic experience; hence all fall by the wayside. The analogy to children is all too clear. Even if their company were an unremitting pleasure, the fact that they require so much company means that other sources of pleasure will all but disappear. Movies, theater, parties, travel—those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce. We believe our children are our greatest joy, and we’re absolutely right. When you have one joy, it’s bound to be the greatest.
Gee, maybe day to day, minute by minute experienced happiness isn’t the only thing people care about?