Children can make you happy. But only once they’ve left home. So suggests a new academic study. It’s the latest in a pile of recent studies that have sought to measure parenting and happiness. While the results have been mixed, most suggest that parents are less happy than non-parents.
The very question “Do children make parents happy?” would have seemed odd a generation or two ago. Having children was simply what you did.
Possessing greater reproductive choice has been a boon, especially for women. But the way we think of choice has also distorted our perception of happiness and of the significance of children.
We look upon happiness today almost exclusively in an individual context. It’s something that you, and you alone, feel or desire. Unhappiness comes from being constrained in what you can do. But everything we do is shaped by constraints, because we live not simply as individuals but within societies. Some constraints are good, some are bad. Politics, in part, is about defining which are good and which bad and about minimising the latter.
But constraints are inevitable. There is almost nothing we do that gives us pleasure that does not also impose a burden. What we think of as constraints – the impositions of family, of friends, of social obligations – are often the buttresses of a rich emotional life. An isolated individual, free of all constraints, would hardly be happy. That’s why we dread loneliness so much.
Certainly, children cost in terms of time, money, sleep and anxiety. They stop you partying, affording a holiday, even reading a book. They also bring great pleasure and joy.
There is nothing wrong with not having children, though that imposes its own burdens. There is, however, everything wrong with viewing children as mere constraints upon our lives.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist