Parents and the childfree: A neuroscientist explains who is happier
Some parents say having kids is the best thing they've ever done... others would quite like some time to themselves. So, overall, does having kids make you happier?
For many generations, having children was seen as a necessity, and obligation even. Having children of your own was part of being an adult. However, in recent years, this traditional view is no longer as dominant as it once was, with increasing numbers of people opting to forgo reproducing.
On the other hand, the majority of people still seem to want children at some point. Women are still regularly pilloried for choosing to not become mothers. And IVF treatment is as in demand as ever.
Who’s right? If you’re on the fence about the issue, what does the science say? Are you likely to be happier with children, or without?
This is obviously a far more complex question than it looks, as individual factors will play a huge role in your decision and how it would pan out for you. But nonetheless, here are the general things that happen in the brain when you have children of your own.
The initial stages, when a baby is born, are very intense, for the mother at least. The birthing and nursing process causes her system to become flooded with oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’, one that amplifies emotional bonds and causes us to experience more pleasure with interpersonal connections. And it’s hard to imagine an interpersonal connection stronger than the one between mother and baby. So, the emotions you experience upon having children will be a lot more intense than what you’re likely to experience without them.
It applies to dads and any other type of parent, too. The biological mother may have the most ‘direct’ connection to the baby, what with having created it within her own body, but every human brain is hard-wired to respond to babies positively.
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The smells they give off, their outsized facial features, their vulnerability, their size, our brains experience a heightened response to all these, compelling us to protect and bond with the source. In this case, it’s the baby, but anything with similar traits can trigger a similar response in us. This is why cute things are perceived as such.
However, this intense experience of bonding and subsequent giddy happiness will dissipate eventually. It’s not that the parents don’t love their children or regret them, but babies, and later children, are very demanding. And the parents are solely responsible for them.
The sleepless nights, the dirty nappies, the expense, the mess, the fact that your life is no longer your own, all these and more can really ramp up the stress and related negative emotions. It’s just how your brain works.
But then, you also experience the joy of achievement, of the intense love for your child, the fun you have together, the pleasure of seeing them mature.
Essentially, the evidence we have suggests that having children can make you happier. It also can make you feel unhappy, or constantly stressed, or anxious, and so on. Overall, it seems like having children makes your emotional experiences more intense than if you don’t have them. The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and whether that sounds like a good deal to you is your choice entirely.
Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.