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Remember those psychological studies that purported to show that having children doesn’t add to a person’s overall level of happiness ? A new, more nuanced, study provides a different perspective :

According to the [“day reconstruction method”] 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.”

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