He spotted me as I was rounding the corner, and the scene that followed was one of inexpressible loveliness, right out of the movie I’d played to myself before actually having a child, with him popping out of his babysitter’s arms and barreling down the street to greet me. I was guided by nerves, trawling the cabinets for alcohol. My emotional life looks a lot like this these days. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier.
Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. The idea that parents are less happy than nonparents has become so commonplace in academia that it was big news last year when the Journal of Happiness Studies published a Scottish paper declaring the opposite was true. Yet one can see why people were rooting for that paper. The results of almost all the others violate a parent’s deepest intuition. Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and host of This Emotional Life on PBS, wrote fewer than three pages about compromised parental well-being in Stumbling on Happiness. But whenever he goes on the lecture circuit, skeptical questions about those pages come up more frequently than anything else.