(Second) Spring, Fertility and Happiness

Despite the ever changing weather, I hear birds chirping outside. Beams of sunlight come and go, as do bees that are kept at the local elementary. The daffodils have not given in to the rain and the mosquitoes have not arrived yet. Perfect spring. New green life is piercing through frosty soil, and a somehow larger family of Easter bunnies gathers on our lawn. A good moment to think about how human families form and grow and pursue happiness. I have witnessed this lifecycle building best in my immediate friends, such as Beth (not her real name).

Beth has been married for over ten years now. She confided to me that her wellbeing had changed markedly since she first partnered with Jack. Getting married and moving in together nudged up her happiness. Trying for a child and getting pregnant brought an even deeper contentment and feeling of security, also for Jack. The actual birth of the first baby was life changing and laborious. But at the same time deeply rewarding and instilling pride. Beth and Jack felt like family. Both of them older than 36, they also saw a long held wish materialize, and at a time where their biological clock could have decided otherwise. In spite of the hard work that followed and would eat up part of their leisure for good, they were happy.

Mikko Myrskylä und Rachel Margolis mined the extensive data from British and German household panels and found that the birth of a child normally increases the parents’ happiness. This is strongest for the first child and a bit milder for the second (and non-positive for the third). The effect is temporarily very strong. As they write, “happiness is, on average, 0.3-0.5 units higher (on 0-10 scale) when a child is born compared to the baseline 4-5 years earlier. This magnitude is comparable to the effect of divorce (-0.49) or going to from employed to unemployed (-0.47).”

Happiness gets a boost around the birth of a child, with 2-3 years anticipation before the birth and lasting 1-2 years thereafter. The happiness increasing period before birth may reflect partnering, marriage and getting pregnant; and the post birth decline possibly a realization of the permanent loss of spare time.

And, wait for it. You better have your kids at a mature age. Older parents, above 35, as well as the highly educated have a stronger happiness surge, and even when happiness drops around 2 years after the birth, it still stays above the long term average. So for these groups, parenthood increases their happiness sustainably. Younger parents (below 25) can see their happiness decline long term. This may reflect that younger parents typically have fewer resources available, and also that they still have a – now unfulfilled – need to enjoy life and leisure on their own. Older parents likely have had their partying years and can let them go.

Looking at all this it is understandable that more and more people decide to have their children later, and to limit their number. Parenthood in the second springtime of life lets the new happiness last.

New Year Special: 6 Things To Make The Joy Last


Do you still feel the holiday warmth? Our house for sure still breathes hot chocolate, cookies, spiced goose, gifts, generosity and good company. I love it, and would like it to linger.

Can it? Over the years I have found that what can last without boredom is the inner part, the family ties, the altruism, the generosity – non-material would be too simple an expression; family ties can be very material. But transcendental nonetheless. The consumption aspects grow stale far too quickly. I mean I lurrve chocolates. Really. But I can’t look at them right now. Not even the finest brands – which I usually crave all year.

Another phenomenon came up this holiday, and everyone, including president Obama apparently, is going gaga about Fates and Furies. I also enjoy the read. Being still in the first quarter of the book, it’s kooky and a little bit crazy, a tasty and lighter bite after Crime and Punishment, which my book club wormed through earlier.

The new book, as many of you may know, dwells on marriage. How it can be something altogether new even after a string of relationships. The book marvels, almost like a distant perplexed observer, about how marriage can last, about passion that lasts.

But it can. Yes it can.

Psychologists have found that the kind of passion that typically a new love brings can indeed last decades. In very long-term couples that report still being madly in love, MRIs find brain activity that suggests new love next to other feelings commonly found in older companionate marriages, such as trust, familiarity and a feeling of kinship.

I am actually not surprised. In fact, I am rather happy that someone else provides a good argument-ology to my anecdotal observations and doesn’t let me look like a doe eyed dreamer when I claim the same.

So what makes the joy of marriage last? There are six attitudes you need to hold on to and cultivate, according to this research. Hint, we are onto our seasonal theme again: inner values matter. Intentionality matters. Having friends matters.

So here you go:

  1. Have some money, but spend it frugally and don’t care if your partner is rich. The couple should have solid earnings (i.e. more than $125k for the household). But only little should be spent on the engagement ring and the wedding, and neither partner should care if the other is rich.
  2. Don’t care too much about looks either. People who report caring about the looks of their partner are more likely to divorce.
  3. Go to religious worship regularly. This one is now well established in the research, and no wonder. Common values bond, a network of friends with the same values supports, and the whole thing is transcendental and non-consumerist = the essence of durability.
  4. Date 3 or more years before engagement. It sure helps to know each other well, to weed out any remaining information asymmetry, and to have weathered some ups and downs together. But to be honest, this one is a bit of a trade-off with the previous habit. The religiously observant, for whom ‘time before engagement’ often means abstinence, will not be thrilled by the length of this time. Religious people tend to have shorter pre-engagement and pre-marriage times.
  5. Have lots of friends at the wedding. People with bigger (but not more expensive) weddings are less likely to divorce. This one may be a proxy for ‘have lots of friends’ generally. People with lots of friends are probably not dramatically difficult to get along with, plus they have networks for help (with kids, the house) and emotional support. The appreciation of friends for the bride and groom is essential also because its absence would mean that partners would sometimes have to choose whom to spend time with, friends or spouse.
  6. Go on honeymoon. People who went on honeymoon are significantly less likely to divorce than people who did not. This probably means, don’t be too stressed or too workaholic to have a honeymoon at all. Or, in other words, be able to rank your relationship more highly than any other gainful occupation.

In the hope that every reader’s joy may last during 2016 and beyond. Happy New Year!

 

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Love and Work

I wanted to write a post that matches a seasonal date and picked 1st of May, which is the day of work (or labor) in many countries. And just as I am looking for an inspiration to write about Love and Work, a domestic discussion dawns upon me that is right on theme. Best Husband is not thrilled at yours truly working too much in the office and too little at home. He’s got a point: contrary to the mainstream, he really shoulders the bulk, some 90%, of our housework. He has also, for an extended time, been a stay-at-home-dad.

So what would a wise Economist advice? Who should do what in the home, and how much? Here are three points that should guide your decision:

  1. Comparative advantage. Old theory, still true. Who of you is comparatively faster and better at household chores (compared to other tasks that are waiting, such as childcare and work outside the house) should do more of them (and less of the other tasks). Putting all tasks on the table together may aid the negotiation.
  2. If you want more kids, make sure the woman doesn’t do too much. An Australian study (Craig and Siminski, Soc Pol 2010) found that the higher the workload of wives in a household, the less likely the household was to decide for a second child.
  3. Absolute workload matters more than relative share of husband vs wife. In the study mentioned above, the relative share showed no effect on fertility decisions. It doesn’t matter to the wife if the husband alleviates her load, or if hired help does. (Actually, the latter should be more popular, because the wife may want to spend her newfound leisure with her husband..rather than see him work.)

Who’s in Your League?

Charlotte is an extremely attractive woman in her late 30s. She is college educated, compassionate, sporty (good skier) and her beautiful craftwork could make Martha Stewart envious. No kidding. It would be easy to write her ad without any exaggeration. She has never had a want of suitors since the age of 13, when I first met her. – Still, she has been just as extremely unlucky in love. After several broken relationships, she is just about to give up on the couple thing. One thing that did puzzle me was her choice of partners: while honest and friendly, they were quite average in about everything else including looks, education, interests and effort.

Charlotte, for all I can see, has never held out for somebody in her own league. I would rather place her film star looks, bright mind and exquisite taste next to a hard-working, highly educated overachiever. A category that neither of her former partners inhabited.
This prompts me to plough the literature for 5 facts to keep in mind when choosing your own league:

  1.  You need to set your own standard and search for it. If you don’t find the quality you are looking for where you are, (also if you don’t really know how good things can get) you need to cast your net more widely. This means online dating, singles groups and, why not, the classic matchmaker. It also means pursuing your values. Fighting for a cause, whether in politics, an NGO or in your neighborhood community will unearth people who think on your wavelength.
  2. Men tend to overestimate, women to underestimate their attractiveness. (And within each gender, more attractive people underestimate, and less attractive ones overestimate their prowess.) Says this research. What is more, men become especially overconfident with attractive women. In the light of this, ladies and gentlemen (and stunners and wallflowers) kindly adjust your earlier assessment of yourself.
  3. Your league is relative. It can always be higher than you thought, in the right environment. As several speed dating studies found, your dating opportunities depend largely on circumstance. So choose your circumstances wisely.
  4. People in your league tend to like the same things as you. Taste is a good proxy for education, and education and effort are reasonable proxies for achievement. Moreover, it is good to choose a partner that likes the same things as you and enjoys doing them together; this will enhance relationship quality later on says research quoted here.
  5. Your confidence signals who you are. Check here. In a world where people don’t know you yet, they will go by the signal you send yourself. If it places a high value on yourself, that is the value people will assume.

 

 

 

Men care about (their) children

How many split families do you know where the father plays a role after divorce? How big is that role?  – If your perspective is anywhere near mine, the role probably differs for each case you know. Sometimes by choice, and sometimes, depending on where the couple resided, by law. Not all countries and federal states recognize joint custody.

Researchers recently found out that this custody law not only matters for divorce but also for marriage. Men adjust their behavior depending on the law: whether they marry at all, how many kids they have, if any, and how they behave in marriage. By all appearances, the evidence looks like men gain in bargaining power if they can have joint custody. At least the men that care about kids. On the plus side that means they are more eager to marry, have kids and have them in a marriage, and have less recourse to domestic violence. The catch is that they also divorce more easily once married and keep women at home rather than encouraging them to work.

On balance, not a bad deal for both sides.

2 good reasons to share childcare: prevent divorce and get better sex

This is a true story. Jill is a stunning woman of about 41. She has just separated from husband number two (and partner number three), a father of two of her kids. Her serial separations have been difficult of course, but to outsiders, Jill may look like a divorcee who can afford to ‘shop’, given her looks.

Let’s, however, consider another aspect of the plot. She and her ex-husband agreed joint custody in court, and the ex looks after the kids for 1.5 days on the weekend. 1.5 days during which previously, like in most marriages, Jill looked after the kids. The same history of arrangements is true for her first child, of husband number 1. In other words, Jill now receives from the fathers of her children an effort in childcare she never got (and would have never gotten) while she was married to them.

This finding is no rarity. The time use between the genders is the area that is still ‘unemancipated’ in America. On average, women have less spare time than men, whether they are housewives or breadwinners. And the main reason is childcare. Jill had to divorce to get a fair share of childcare.

Another good reason to share childcare evenly between mum and dad is the phenomenon that men produce less testosterone when they are more involved with their children. (And women, likely, produce a bit more then, given they have more time to relax and can let stress/adrenaline take a back seat.) Less testosterone in men means less demand for sex, and, huh, more patience during the act. (And more in women means, huh, the opposite.) So, sharing childcare should balance out the gap in the need for sex often bemoaned by men, and at the same time make the act more fulfilling for both.

Off you go, guys: look after the kids and give mum a day off!

The Feat of the Cheat

Sadly, cheating happens. Media earn very well from reports on celebrity cheating. Both men and women are guilty, if in different shares. Why people cheat is open to debate and we, frankly, don’t know. But economists can say something about what happens to cheats – the feat of the cheat.

A marriage is an investment. A huge investment, usually into monogamy among other things, consciously foregoing other opportunities. A cheater renounces that investment while the other party still pays dues. Problem is, the other party usually suspects.

Economists call what happens next the ‘hold-up’ problem. Suspicion, lack of trust in a joint undertaking leads to hold-up of own contributions. Like attention, time, chores, love, honesty, loyalty….or all of these. The more likely someone is to cheat, the more likely he will be missing any of the above.

What can be done? The best prevention of this is to make the marital commitment rock-solid from the start. Different cultures have experimented differently, but remedies include wedding witnesses (with whom reputation can be lost), joint property, the administrative costs of dissolving a civil marriage, prohibition of divorce of catholic marriages, up to more draconian punishments under sharia (which were probably never meant to be carried out in the first place, but to threaten people into compliance).

A commitment ‘written in stone’ has the opposite effect to a hold-up: opening up of the partners pays. Giving more attention, time, chores, love, you name it – cannot be lost. What happens in the marriage stays in the marriage – rather than in Vegas..