26 August, 2011

Studying happiness

Studies regularly come out that show that childless people are (in general) happier than those with children.  And a while ago a reader of mine commented about another such study getting publicity (in the comments on my Selfish post here).  She said:

“... it just made me roll my eyes at yet again another study designed to make one group feel better about choices or circumstances ... drawing a circle around one group and saying "Everyone here is this/everyone here is MORE this than everyone on the outside of the circle" is ridiculous.”

I agree with her – after all, she’s asking everyone to simply “let them be.” She’s saying not everyone who is childfree is happier than those with children, and equally it is not true the other way round either.  You can't argue with that.

But I don’t agree necessarily that this study was designed to make one group feel better about choices or circumstances over another.  After all, there is a lot of research about happiness, trying to figure out what the secrets are, what is different about happy or “cup half full” people.  And I think that this is good.  I worry that (like my mother) I have a tendency to worry.  (Hint:  Worrying about worrying is a bad sign.)  I worry that (like his father) my husband might turn into an old man with a depressive, negative outlook.  And so I like reading about happiness.  I like learning that being busy, and helping others, is in fact going to contribute to making my life happier.  I like being able to point out to my mother that by going to visit and help her annoying neighbour, she’s helping herself too.  I like knowing that when I’m old and have a cat, the cat will help soothe me and make me happy. Studying happiness – whilst it might seem a little pointless – can actually be useful, I think.

The thing is though, that not all the world is fair and balanced (unlike my friend I referred to above).   I find myself on the side of the fence where society, the media, and other men and women seem to do their darndest to convince me that I will never be happy without children.  (Sure, they're less obvious about it now.  But the pity says it all).  It's pervasive.  This family-centric focus of society is ingrained in advertising, in media reporting, TV, movies, books, and don’t get me started on political campaigning.  Even Cathy, the cartoon on the young modern woman, finished with her announcement that she was pregnant.  The assumption being of course that this was the ultimate happy ending.  That she wouldn’t live happily ever after if she didn’t have children. 

If you do have children, perhaps you don’t notice this; I don’t know.  I do know, though, that over the last ten years I have watched hundreds of women grieve their pregnancy losses, the loss of their tubes and sometimes the loss of their fertility, petrified that they will never ever be happy because they won’t end up with that holy grail of society, a baby.  For a time I was one of them.  I remember (though I also blame rampant hormones) being less concerned that I might have cancer, than the fact that if I did I would not be able to try to conceive for at least a year.  I was 40 at the time, and knew that this would likely mean I would never have children.  I was furious at the nurse who said to me “you’ve got to think of yourself now.”  She didn’t realise that I was thinking of myself, and that  I was afraid that – if I lived – I would have a life I wasn’t sure (at the time) was worth living.  My hormones were ruling my emotions, but my brain had also bought into everything I was exposed to, telling me that children are the ultimate prize, the necessary ingredient to achieve any happiness in life. 

Childfree couples who are perfectly content with their decisions not to have children find this constant barrage of opinion to be frustrating and insulting, as if they don’t know their own minds, as if they aren’t capable of making a responsible decision.  Childless not-by-choice couples (though my experience is largely of childless women, more specifically) often find this focus on family to be extremely distressing.  It reminds them of what they wanted, but could not have.  It makes them feel isolated, abnormal. And they worry that they will never achieve happiness again.  They face the future with real trepidation, imagining years of emptiness and sadness and loss stretching out before them.  Some  consider suicide, and they cry out for help.  They feel like failures, although their strength in living in a society that constantly tells them they are abnormal and unsuccessful shows that in fact they are far from failures.  They are my heroes.

Like my friend, I wish that there wasn’t such an emphasis on promoting one lifestyle decision or circumstance as being in any way superior to another.  It isn't fair to anyone - it places unfair expectations on people on both sides of the fence, it makes people feel there's no hope, or that they are failures, or it makes the smug even smugger.   But we can't change our imperfect society.  Not now anyway.  So here I am.  A childless woman living in this society where “having a family” is supposed to be the only way to achieve fulfilment and happiness and full humanity (and womanhood).  And so I have to say that finding a study that contradicts the common stereotype, and that tells me - or perhaps more importantly, tells other women going through loss and fear right now - that our lives won’t be lonely and sad, but can be happy and full, is very welcome.


  1. I totally agree, Mali.

    I sometimes think that childless/free people (for whatever reason) are where gay people were 20 years ago in terms of societal acceptance.

  2. Loribeth: that could well be. Interesting: my mother once said about my cousin, who is gay and in a relationship with a wonderful person, how lonely it must be for them not to have children. And I remember laughing at her, because 20 years ago they probably wouldn't have been able to have each other (and they are globe-trotting spa-using fashion industry busy guys, they aren't pining for kids they don't have while they have yet another drink at the karoeke bar in Miami surrounded by 3 dozen friends). As lonely people go, my mother, of 4 children, is right up there at the top.

    You're right about the happiness studies. Some are useful, like the ones who look at elderly people who are either surrounded by different generations of folks or those who live in elderly communities or those who retire or those who keep working or so forth. Who goes to church, who eats dinner alone, who likes their coworkers, etc. The ones that bug me are probably taken out of context by people who want to use them to make a point.

    My sister Bevin, who will probably never have kids, said today "Sometimes I have this urge to have children because I'm afraid that stupid conservative people are having all the kids and they're going to ruin our country. But then I come to my senses."

    Again, I have many things to say and I don't want to derail this with my words. I'll have to say it on my own space!

  3. I lived in NZ for a while and had the privilege to meet 'Uncle Ray', the great uncle of a coworker. Ray was 17 when he met his Rose, 16, and everyone told them it wouldn't last, they were too young. When after many years they found they couldn't have children everyone told them again it wouldn't last because of that... They were married for 60 years when she died. I met Uncle Ray on his travels. He had invited some nieces, and I was brought along. He was happy to 'expand' his family and include me too, I loved him like my grandfather instantly. No matter if we were downtown Bangkok or in a fishing cabin in rural NZ, he never seemed to be lonely in his old age, certainly not the way people predicted more than 60 years ago.
    Thank you for reminding me of this. Happiness comes from within. But sometimes it is hard not to be overwhelmed by fear and regret like you said, to doubt whether life is worth living. I do need people around me, but maybe, maybe they need not be the children I always thought I would have.

  4. This warmed my heart, thank you! :)

  5. you know, the people doing these studies really have no reason to make them come out one way or another. most of them are done by doctors, sociologists, etc. I think that it could be true that people without kids are happier due to a lot less stress and financial burdens.

    the few older couples i know who chose not to have kids, are quite happy. and for all i know, they might have dealt with infertility, but they still seem extremely content. I think we do need this one piece of good news in a world that is filled with pressures to breed and where we are constantly exposed to images of families and told that children are the ultimate happiness.

    I learned from watching my own parents that there is a lot of happiness to be had without kids around. my parents seem like a much happier couple now that my sister and i are adults than when we were children. they finally get to enjoy each other again. i wish other ways of living could jut be more accepted as happy and valid in our world, but maybe in time.

  6. Thanks, Mali. As always, fantastic post.