CivicScience | You Don’t Need to Have Kids to be Happy

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You Don’t Need to Have Kids to be Happy

I hope you’ve read the analysis we published on Quartz.com about the differences between parents and non-parents in the U.S. If you haven’t read it, here are the Cliff’s Notes: On most lifestyle metrics (sleep, fitness, diet, social life, travel, and entertainment), non-parents generally appear, according to the data, to have a better quality of life than parents. However, when asked to rate how happy they were, parents as a whole actually reported slightly higher levels of overall happiness. That was supposed to be a surprise twist.

Naturally, the article drew an enormous amount of celebration (from parents) and criticism (from non-parents). I would have bet my beat-up Honda Pilot that this was going to happen. There just seemed to be no way I could discuss the data with an adequate level of empathy for people on both sides.  And obviously the data only show aggregate response outcomes, not individual exceptions.

So let me take a different angle on the same data we analyzed:

There are a lot of people out there who say that you can’t truly be happy if you don’t have kids. And, while our data might suggest that, on average, parents are slightly more likely to report being happy on a daily basis, the difference is very small. Here is the full chart below:

parents_by_happiness

If, as many people like to say, “Having children gives me purpose in life” or “I didn’t know pure happiness until I had kids,” then wouldn’t we expect to see much bigger discrepancies in happiness than 1 percentage-point here or 4 percentage-points there? Instead, these number show us that people can indeed find happiness and purpose from a lot of other areas in their lives – it could be travel, music, food, fitness, entertainment, faith, or any of a number of other things.

I was really torn about even publishing this data. The idea that I would offend people without kids – especially people who couldn’t biologically have kids or otherwise chose not to for reasons that are none of my business – absolutely haunted me.

In the end, however, I thought the data was too interesting not to share it. The intended message was more about the fact that we all (parents and non-parents) feel a lot of societal pressure to exercise more, sleep more, eat better, listen to more music, see more movies, and live more adventurous lives – but that we don’t necessarily need those things to be happy. Kids aren’t necessary for happiness either.

I think what I really learned from this research and from the flurry of comments and feedback that followed is this: The grass, on Facebook and in life, always seems greener on the other side of the fence. Maybe it’s just equally green on both sides, for different reasons.

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