My wife is pregnant, so I have a personal stake in research on how parenthood affects people's happiness. And new research suggests that we're about to make a big mistake. As the Washington Post's headline puts it: "Parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner."
The study tries to quantify how parenthood affects people's self-reported levels of happiness. Researchers surveyed 2,016 Germans and asked them, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?" They found that having a kid reduced people's self-reported happiness by a larger amount than divorce, unemployment, or the death of a romantic partner.
One possible interpretation of these results is that people should have fewer kids. But I think a better conclusion is that this kind of data is a bad way to make major life decisions.
A good way to see this is to think about the people who accomplish great things in their lives. Most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that starting a company isn't much fun. The average founder spends years doing grueling, thankless work with only a small chance that their efforts will pay off. And in some ways, success only makes entrepreneurship more miserable — the leader of a successful company faces huge demands on her time and constant worry that a misstep could cause her to lose everything.
And you can say similar things about other ambitious, successful people — novelists, musicians, elected officials. Their lives might seem glamorous from afar, but on a day-to-day basis they're often a lot more grueling and stressful than average. That's especially true in the early years, when people are making investments in themselves they hope will pay off years later. Despite these downsides, many ambitious young people choose to pursue challenging careers.
Most of us will never be the next Steve Jobs or Stephen King. But raising a child is a way that almost any healthy adult can make a substantial contribution to the future of their society. Like other difficult but worthwhile projects, raising a child will involve periods of frustration and hardship. And like those other projects, raising a child involves making massive personal investments in the hopes of significant rewards years or even decades in the future.
Self-reported happiness levels may be lower, especially during the early years when the greatest investment is required. But if that's an argument against having kids, it's also an argument against pursuing difficult long-term goals in general.