Happiness, Money, Health, and Children
© 15 May 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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I wish I had less/fewer _____…


In contemplating a poorly-executed joke, I often contemplate jokes, poorly-executed or not. Jokes often hinge on nuance of experience and meaning and can be a lovely jumping-off-point for deep contemplation. I started thinking about things for which you might justly say “‍you never hear people complaining about having too much X.‍” Four of these never-have-too-much things quickly came to mind: happiness, money, health, and children. Of these, children stood out to me in three ways: “‍child‍” is the only count noun in the list (the others being mass nouns I somehow managed to make it until earlier this year before I learned the terms “‍count noun‍” and “‍mass noun‍”. I talked about the ideas many times before that, but always invented by own vocabulary to do so. ); it is not generally accepted that more is better with children (where it is with the others); and there are people who do not want children at all (but I don’t know any who don’t want the others).

Now, I suppose there are people who want fewer children than they have. Possibly that set even includes people that I know and they just don’t tell me of this desire. Still, though I have seen evidence of parents who wish they had no children, I have seen none (so far) of people who wish they had some but not so many as they do have. Which begs the question: why does no one (seem to) overshoot how many children to have?

The lack of overshooting is particularly interesting when considering teen moms, “‍accidental‍” or “‍surprise‍” children, mothers who conceived during rape, and other categories of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. When I was proselytizing in run-down parts of New York City I met many of these unplanned mothers, some with half a dozen “‍extra‍” children, but never once did I hear any of them suggest they wished they had fewer children I heard them wish all kinds of other things, things I am still shocked they chose to tell a pair of 19-year-old boys, but never for fewer children. .

There are at least three explanations possible for this apparent phenomenon—four if you count that it might be only a façade and not a true phenomenon at all.

  1. Maybe anyone with the capacity to desire a single child will be happier with each additional child they receive; children really are a “‍more is better‍” asset.

  2. Maybe having too many children is less unpleasant than losing a child you have; it’s the reduction not the smaller number that isn’t desired.

  3. Maybe something (genes, culture, God, who knows) causes people to seek a much smaller number of children than the number that would actually maximize their happiness such that actually overshooting would require many unplanned births.

To the degree that I have evidence, it tends to suggest the first option above: each new child actually increases the joy of the parents. As the Psalmist wrote,

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: the fruit of the womb a reward. […] Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.

But if this is the case, then why are there people who want none, and why so many people who don’t want any more? Is there anything else with this strange all-or-nothing desirability, any other asset where many people have some but don’t want more—unless and until they get more anyway?

In the undying words of Kevan Jacobson, “‍Things that make you go ‘‍Hmm‍’.‍”

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