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Happy news on happiness; what can we believe?

Sharon Jayson writes:

The conventional wisdom that’s developed over the past few decades — based on early research — has said parents are less happy, more depressed and have less-satisfying marriages than their childless counterparts.

But now, two new studies presented as part of the Population Association of America’s annual meeting suggest that earlier findings in several studies weren’t so clear-cut and may, in fact, be flawed. The newer analyses presented this week use analytical methods based on data from almost 130,000 adults around the globe — including more than 52,000 parents — and the conclusions aren’t so grim. They say that parents today may indeed be happier than non-parents and that parental happiness levels — while they do drop — don’t dip below the levels they were before having children. . . .

The other study, of some 120,000 adults from two nationally representative surveys between 1972-2008, finds that parents were indeed less happy than non-parents in the decade 1985-95, but parents from 1995 to 2008 were happier. . . .

This is consistent with my observation that happiness research is a mess. Don’t get me wrong: I think happiness is very much worth studying. But various seemingly well-known results don’t seem so clear when they are studied more carefully. This is not the first time that Happiness Scholar #2 comes to an opposite conclusion as Happiness Scholar #1.

The larger point, perhaps, is that it that “stylized facts” (the social-science term for generally-accepted findings) can mislead. Sometimes the interaction is bigger than the main effect.

Here’s a recent paper by Mikko Myrskylä, one of the researchers mentioned in the above article:

The literature on fertility and happiness has neglected comparative analysis. We investigate the fertility/happiness association using data from the World Values Surveys for 86 countries. We find that globally, happiness decreases with the number of children. This association, however, is strongly modified by individual and contextual factors. Most importantly, we find that the association between happiness and fertility evolves from negative to neutral to positive above age 40, and is strongest among those who are likely to benefit most from upward intergenerational transfers. In addition, analyses by welfare regime show that the negative fertility/ happiness association for younger adults is weakest in countries with high public support for families, and the positive association above age 40 is strongest in countries where old-age support depends mostly on the family.

The news article ends with the following comment:

“The first child increases happiness quite a lot. The second child a little. The third not at all,” says Myrskylä.

As a statistician, I hate hate hate hate hate when people ignore variability and present results deterministically. The above statement might be an accurate summary of average patterns but is certainly not true in every case!

10 Comments

  1. What you’re saying seems to imply that much of the findings of happiness research made popular by say, Gilbert, are flawed because the stats are flawed. Is this correct? Or is rather that the fundamental research is correct but the reporting of it in the popular media (including by Gilbert himself) is incorrect?

    • Andrew says:

      Patrick:

      I don’t know. All I can say is that different researchers seem to be finding different things, even in large datasets. This sort of variation in estimates of the main effect suggest to me that there are important interactions.

  2. Fred says:

    This reminds me a thesis from a National University Statistical Modelling Competition in China.

  3. Jeff R says:

    How would you like this to be said? If it starts with “on average” is it better?

    “‘The first child increases happiness quite a lot. The second child a little. The third not at all,’ says Myrskylä.”

    • Andrew says:

      Jeff:

      Yes, if it starts with “on average” it is better.

      • Gustav says:

        Well, it is a news article. Myrskylä may have phrased it differently but the journalist wanted to simplify things.
        “… hate when people ignore variability and present results deterministically”

        • Andrew says:

          Gustav:

          I agree, such simplifications may be inevitable, and there’s a lot worse out there. Still, I hate it!

  4. Statistician says:

    Some of the reasons why happiness ratings can be flawed:
    – People aren’t always honest about how happy they are, especially if an honest low rating would upset those around them, or lead to annoying efforts by others to cheer them up, or if people would think less of them or question their mental health, lifestyle, relationships, religion etc.
    – There are different forms of happiness.
    – Peoples’ expressions/ratings of happiness differ e.g. someone who gives a rating of 8/10 might be feeling just as happy as someone who gives a rating of 10/10.
    – Due to its emotive nature, perceptions of happiness in the present and in hindsight about a particular point in time don’t remain constant and can interact. The same can’t be said about more factual things such as an individual’s income, employment status, debt etc.
    – As the quantity of experiences increase, an individual may be more reluctant to make extreme ratings.

  5. You CAN believe this much: looking at statistics to know about happiness is akin to looking at a score-sheet to know about music. Just like kids dance before they learn there is anything that isn’t music, be happy before you learn there is anything that isn’t. You’ll see, as Samuel Beckett observed before us, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”. Alternatively, risk continue to hate hate hate hate hate. Your choice – between statistics and free will. ~Beat

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