In his new book, Flourish, Dr. Martin Seligman writes that if maximizing happiness were the sole explanation for how we choose to live, our species would have become extinct a long time ago. Why is that? We would choose not to reproduce because the research tells us that having children does not maximize happiness. Armed with this knowledge, many couples are choosing to remain childless and emphatically protest that children are not a necessary ingredient to a successful marriage. The Pew Research Center reports that one in five women end their child-bearing years without children. This choice has risen 80% since the 1970’s. 65% of those surveyed state that their main purpose in getting married is happiness ad fulfillment.
Why do people choose to have children?
With a wellspring of data and research suggesting that children do not increase levels of happiness, why do some people choose to have kids? Because they choose based on more than a desire to maximize happiness. They choose based on meaning. Despite the decline in happiness, meaningfulness rises among couples choosing to have children. Parenting can help satisfy all four needs for meaning outlined by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs:
- Purpose – Present events draw meaning from their connection to the future. As a parent, how many times have you pictured the moment when your son or daughter walks across the stage on graduation day> Have you imagined playing with your granchildren?
- Values – Values help people decide whether certain actions are right or wrong. If actions taken as a parent are guided by values, then parents are more secure in knowing they have done the right thing.
- Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can make a difference and that you are have the competencies to reach your goals. As parents, think about all of the milestones – sleeping through the night, toilet-training, driving, going to college – your skills as a parent directly impact your child’s transitions through the stages of development.
- Self-Worth – Seeking reasons for believing that you are a good or worthy person. Getting a note from your child, a painted picture, a smile, a hug, or a simple “thank you” can boost levels of self-worth for any parent.
These four elements seem simplistically linear, because meaning is a stable, nonphysical reality, but life with children is wildly dynamic and malleable. A typical day is thrown off kilter with changes in schedule, temperament, and environment. In the midst of the push and pull of the day, how do parents find meaning in the concrete, sometimes trivial tasks of pouring a bowl of cereal, making a child’s lunch, or driving to soccer practice?
Flourishing parents seem to do two things well: engage high levels of meaning and diversify resources.Meaning oscillates between various levels. Low levels of meaning involve concrete, immediate, and specific meanings: how cooking dinner for your family involves standing in the kitchen, moving your arm back and forth to stir the soup. Higher levels of meaning involve connection across time and to broader goals or values: how cooking dinner for your family builds connections among family members and establishes good communication between you and your children. Parents shift between levels of meaning, typically shifting down when experiencing difficulties or problems in order to increase problem-solving capabilities, and shifting up when things are going well. The shift upward is a positive event that enhances satisfaction and the sense of fulfillment. Based on this research, remaining at a high level of meaning may allow parents to rise above the simple, mundane, rudimentary tasks of child-rearing, to see the greater purpose or meaning in any given situation.
Flourishing parents diversify meaning with multiple sources of purpose, self-efficacy, values, and self-worth, which safeguard them against the unpredictability of life. For instance, if I derive meaning in my life solely from being a parent, then what happens when there is a divorce, teenage rebellion, unexpected family illness, or my children move away to college? Investing time in other domains, such as friends, work, or a life passion is a healthy way for parents to make meaning in other ways. Even though the revised edition of Maslow’s Heirarchy positions parenting at the apex, denoting that children are a parent’s life work, flourishing parents have a diversified portfolio of meaning-making experiences.
Meaning is about connection, and believing in and serving something greater than oneself. Meaningfulness in parenting is a personal covenant to accept imperfections and the dynamic changes that arise. The challenge is to intentionally engage in high levels of meaning and diversify resources for finding meaning. Albert Camus, the French author, journalist and philosopher, wrote in his last published lecture entitled Create Dangerously:
“One may long, as I do, for a gentler flame, a respite, a pause for musing. But perhaps there is no other peace for the artist than what he finds on the heat of combat. “Every wall is a door,” Emerson correctly said. Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is-in the very thick of the battle. For in my opinion, and this is where I shall close, it is there.
Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gently stirring of life and hope.” ~ Albert Camus
Baumeister, R. F. & Vohs, K. D. (2005). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 608-618). New York: Oxford University Press.
Greenleaf, R. K. (2008). The Servant as Leader. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Playing with grandchildren courtesy of Jay Rishel
Pouring cereal courtesy of Kim Piper Werker
Family dinner courtesy of More Good Foundation
Wings of a Dove courtesy of David Campbell
As a middle aged intentional NON parent, I got very little from this article. Uh, not sure the Body matched the Intro at all… fished reading it and said, “Uh, yeah, AND…?”
This article, primarily written for an audience of parents, could offer perspective on why some people choose to have children. I would love to see an article from a nonparent exlaining the choice to stay childless and how it applies to flourshing and well-being. I hope we always seek to understand each other!
Elizabeth – Breeding is hard wired is hardwired into the primal parts of our brain. The reasons you suggest for having children I suspect are cognitive interpretations of these primal drives.
Thanks for your comment. Great point. The reasons I suggest are cognitive interpretations, based on more than biology. Since our brain architecture has evolved, I am interested in how individuals can bypass the biological drive by making a conscious choice not to have kids. For those of us who fulfill the biological need for parenting, I am interested in examining more about how to make the experience meaningful, bringing the attributes of our evolved brain and consciousness into our parenting.
Thanks Liz, It is great to see the whole question of children and happiness placed in the wider context of meaningfulness and even as Wayne says – our hardwired drives.
If people are having children because it is meaningful, it seems like a immoral, selfish act.
Immorality: Bringing a child into the world exposes them to suffering. They cannot suffer if they do not exist. If the goal of morality is to reduce suffering, then not have children is the best course of action since there is no way they could suffer.
Selfishness: Bringing a child into the world so you can have a sense of purpose, feel efficacious, and worthy does not take into consideration the child’s interests. These things are solely about you. Essentially, you are using a child as a means to an end. Some would say this is also immoral.
A side point: One wonders how a person can experience meaningfulness and no happiness (i.e., positive emotion and positive evaluation). Without positive emotion and evaluation, what’s left to feel if we say something is meaningful?
Hi, MrSkeptic, I think the key thing is, whether you perceive the children’s lives to be happy or miserable.
There’s no doubt that a child will suffer sometimes in her life. But just like you have to suffer physical pain and exhaustion before you can win a game, I think the sufferings are totally worthy compared to the happiness we harvest.
I have my first-born recently. When I look at him, I think of the times when he runs in a sports game, when he visits Disney land, and when he first learn calculus (this may seem nerdy but I really find calculus beautiful). All these takes efforts, even visiting Disney lands takes some tedious driving and waiting in the lines. But I think my son will most likely find it worthy.
Of course I do not know what my son will eventually feel in the future. But I think parents do play a very big role in affecting the way children look at the world. If you believe life is beautiful and worhty living, chances are your children will more likely to feel the same way. I don’t see any immorality or selfishness here.
After all, morality and selflessness doesn’t mean you have to benefit others without any benefits of your own. That’s called sacrifice. Parenting is not a zero-sum win-lose game. It’s not that parents sacrifice for the kids, nor that parents use kids for their meaning. It’s a non-zero-sum win-win game that bring happiness (including meaning) to both.
Hi Yukun Zhao,
“Hi, MrSkeptic, I think the key thing is, whether you perceive the children’s lives to be happy or miserable.”
No amount of self-deception will undermine the truth that life is filled with suffering. Take a look around. Notice at every moment one sentient being or another is suffering. There is the suffering of birth, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of aging, and the suffering of death. There is also the suffering of not getting what one wants and getting what one doesn’t want. The reality is procreation sets this whole wheel of suffering in motion, and it is you who is responsible for it.
“There’s no doubt that a child will suffer sometimes in her life. But just like you have to suffer physical pain and exhaustion before you can win a game, I think the sufferings are totally worthy compared to the happiness we harvest.”
I think you have trivialized suffering by comparing it to exhaustion during a game. These are nothing more than metaphors by which to interpret life and there function is to rationalize and justify your actions. The reality is suffering is often undesired and there is more of it than we would like. Exhaustion is something we have control over. Cancer, diabetes, and a whole host of other diseases are out of our control.
“I have my first-born recently. When I look at him, I think of the times when he runs in a sports game, when he visits Disney land, and when he first learn calculus (this may seem nerdy but I really find calculus beautiful). All these takes efforts, even visiting Disney lands takes some tedious driving and waiting in the lines. But I think my son will most likely find it worthy.”
Yes, and I imagine he will also experience existential angst and wonder why he was born and has to suffer. During these moments, he will not think of life as worthy, but as meaningless. How will you rationalize his existence then?
“Of course I do not know what my son will eventually feel in the future. But I think parents do play a very big role in affecting the way children look at the world. If you believe life is beautiful and worhty living, chances are your children will more likely to feel the same way. I don’t see any immorality or selfishness here.”
Frankly, you don’t believe procreation is immoral or selfish, but you really haven’t provided a persuasive argument for your position. All you have said is that if you raise your children a certain way they will see the world in a positive light. How does that have any bearing on the immorality or selfishness of an act?
“After all, morality and selflessness doesn’t mean you have to benefit others without any benefits of your own.”
I don’t think I have said that being moral means you have to benefit others without benefiting yourself. I said that being moral is acting in a way that reduces the suffering of others and non-procreation is the most efficient way to reduce suffering because it prevents it from happening altogether.
Interesting debate now. 🙂
The key thing is, suffering is a subjective thing. And so is happiness.
Looks like I can’t convince you that life is worthy living because it brings more happiness than sufferings. This is natural that many people believe this way. That’s probably also one of the reasons Camus said that the question of suicide is the most basic philosophical question.
I belong to another group of people who feel more happiness than suffering in life. My personal story will be too long to put here. But in short, I was born in China, received atheism education, experienced nihilism, still remain an agnostic today and still haven’t found the meaning of life (but making progress in it). That was not an easy process, but I feel, in some degree, this is exactly what life is about. You have to figure out the theme of your life, rather than accepting whatever life is.
In the end, this is a problem of choice. You choose what kind of life you want to live, and how you perceive your life. You belief about life here will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know that my son will most likely experience my spiritual and intellectual pursuit again and someday “will also experience existential angst and wonder why he was born and has to suffer”. But I think he will realize that these are the storms necessary to bring the rainbow (sorry, metaphor again).
In summary, I think being moral is not only reducing suffering, but also increasing happiness. I think a child who goes through this self-defining process and finds his true self and meaning will have more happiness than suffering. Therefore, procreation is moral. At least for them.