Friday, 31 July 2009

Maybe having kids is a good idea after all

Who'd ever have thought it could be so difficult to measure happiness? Most large-scale studies rely on so-called "global measures". People are asked to rate how satisfied they are with their life, or something similar. The problems here are obvious: people's answers are likely to be swayed by their current mood, and we probably all interpret labels like "satisfied" in our own way. So along came Nobel prize-winning uber psychologist Daniel Kahneman, with his "day reconstruction method" (DRM). Participants divide the last day up into discrete episodes and rate their feelings during each one. It's a more nuanced measure but it's thrown up some bizarre results. According to the DRM, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things they claim not to enjoy, like spending time with their children, and commuting. Now Mathew White and Paul Dolan, two British academics, have waded into the morass of happiness research, arguing that the DRM can be improved by measuring thoughts, not just feelings.

Six hundred and twenty-five participants completed an online questionnaire about their previous day, generating an average of ten episodes per person, including eating, reading, time with children, watching TV, and commuting.

Just as in the original DRM research, the participants rated each episode according to the feelings they experienced at the time, thus giving a measure of "pleasure". Unlike the earlier research, they also rated their thoughts about each episode (for example, by rating their agreement with sentences like "I feel the activities in this episode were worthwhile/meaningful"), thus giving a measure of "reward".

In terms of pleasure, the results confirmed earlier findings, suggesting that we spend an awful lot of time doing things we don't find pleasurable, including "work" and "shopping". Out of 18 key activities, "time with children" and "sex" both came in around mid-table, far below "outdoor activities" and "watching TV". However, consideration of the ratings for "reward" (as opposed to pleasure) told a rather different story, with "work" now the top scorer, and "time with children" not far behind.

"If one looks only at pleasure, one could come to the same conclusion as Kahneman et al [about time spent with children]" White and Dolan said "that this is relatively 'bad time', but when reward is also considered, time spent with children is relatively 'good time'. Perhaps the statement that 'I enjoy my kids' is not so wrong after all, if enjoyment is interpreted in a broader sense that includes reward in addition to pleasure."

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was no new insight when it came to "commuting": participants rated this activity low on pleasure and low on reward.

ResearchBlogging.orgWhite, M., & Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the Richness of Daily Activities. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02392.x

Further reading:
Think having children will make you happy? [link]
Rare, profound positive events won't make you happy, but lots of little ones will. [link]

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


  1. Anonymous8:42 pm

    Having kids is a good idea if "time with children" rates high on your "reward" scale. Or if "countering population decline" rates highly. Or if anything else which requires a child rates highly.

  2. How far does the new measure actually indicate a rationalisation of the experience as opposed to true feelings? Is it clearly distinguishing between saying 'yes, it is very rewarding work' from 'I feel terrible at work'? As regards children, the reseach found the experience 'mid table' on the feelings rating - perhaps reflecting the mix of pleasure and challenge that our children can represent to us. Does the new rating distinguish for example, guilt that we should be enjoying our children from the possible actual fact that some of us might be finding it all too much?