Does Having Kids Make You Happier?

November 21st, 2009

I can’t even begin to match the thinking and research that Bryan Caplan has done on the subject of kids and happiness (he’s writing a book titled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids), but I can add my two bits, which generally support everything he says.

Short story, the research generally says “no.” Over large population samples, having kids makes people slightly less happy. But Bryan discusses a new (and very well-executed and convincing) study by Luis Angeles that contradicts that consensus.

The results in brief: overall, having two or three kids makes parents happier. Having one, two, or three kids makes married parents happier–but especially two or three.

This is totally in keeping with what I’ve said for a long time: The second kid makes parenting much easier, because single children want your constant and undivided attention, and it just gets wearing. My best piece of evidence is the wonderful line that one mother I knew reported from her child:

“Momma, look at me with your whole face!”

Kids are attention sponges/black holes. Two kids provide each other with much of the attention that each craves.

Angeles’ study supports this. A jump in reported life satisfaction (actually going from negative to positive for the full sample) comes when the second kid arrives. There’s another big jump with the third, then satisfaction drops with four or more.

Correlations Between Number of Children and Parents’ Reported Life Satisfaction (Fixed Effects)

Full Sample Married Couples
One child -0.027 (0.024) 0.017 (0.030)
Two children 0.009 (0.031) 0.074** (0.036)
Three children 0.059 (0.049) 0.197*** (0.057)
Four or more children -0.007 (0.094) 0.184* (0.105)

(*, **, and *** denote statistical significance at 10, 5 and 1% levels. Note that with one exception–widows with one child, which hit 10% significance–these married-couple results are the only ones in Table 4 with statsig below the 10% level.)

Hypothesis: having two parents provides a sufficient baseline quantity of adult attention (for three or fewer children), at which point the attention provided by one or two siblings goes a long way toward satisfying the the children’s (seemingly bottomless) attention needs/wants.

This takes a big load off the parents, increasing their life satisfaction.

With four or more children, even two parents can’t provide the baseline level of sufficient adult attention–the other kids’ attention doesn’t suffice to replace that, and the load lands back on the parents who can’t satisfy it, resulting in reduced life satisfaction for the parents.

An old family friend told me and my spouse when we had our first child, “You can’t give them too much attention. You can give them the wrong kind of attention, but not too much. Kids act up when they’re not getting enough attention.”

My experience and observations bear that out in spades.

Another piece of advice based on all this (along with Bryan’s very wise “get a nanny if you can afford it” suggestion): have lots of play dates.

  1. December 1st, 2009 at 12:07 | #1

    I have found that two Vs. one furry child of the canine variety support your observation of the homosapien type for basically the same reason. I have not tried the doggy three way (no…) but feel that beyond two, the value of sibling self-entertainment is a diminishing return on the investment.

    People have kids (and dogs) for both selfish and altruistic reasons. But whatever the motivation, we can enrich our lives and those of our dependents by taking the step of “parenthood”. Regardless of your choice of species, the expenditure of capital, energy and emotional exposure seem to be well worth the effort.

    Still, I find it interesting that a lot of people opt for the tougher road with the only logical benefit being that of the feeling of making another being better off.

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