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Sex and housework or why I read economics blogs

December 13th, 2004 · 4 Comments

My original title for this post was going to be : My life must be miserable. Last week I read a study published in the New York Times [via Brian Chin’s Buzzworthy blog] titled What Makes People Happy? TV, Study Says.

A team of psychologists and economists is reporting today what many Americans know but don’t always admit, especially to social scientists: that watching TV is a very enjoyable way to pass the time, and that taking care of children – bless their young hearts – is often about as much fun as housework.

When I read the article, I was disturbed for days. The fact that lack of sleep or tight deadlines affected happiness was no surprise. Or as Chris O’Donnell wrote in his post titled Women prefer sex to housework or commuting: Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. Did we really need a study to know this?

But was it true that taking care of children ranked only slightly higher in happiness than performing housework?

Yet contrary to previous research on daily moods, the study found that the women rated TV-watching high on the list, ahead of shopping and talking on the phone, and ranked taking care of children low, below cooking and not far above housework.

What did this mean for parenting in America if people preferred TV to kids? Are we all miserable moms and dads? Is it passivity (and pleasure) that make us happy?

However when I read Tyler Cowan’s post with excerpts from another article, and Glen Whitman’s post, it all began to become clearer.

The study subjects were working women. From reading the other article, it seems that activities with children was also an option. Taking care of children and activities with children are two separate components of parenthood. Activities with kids implies creating a craft or taking a trip to the zoo, having fun, interacting for a specific purpose. Taking care of children may mean wiping bottoms or wiping faces. Although I am not a working woman, I can imagine that if I were employed outside the home, my time with our kids would be different. I would want to do activities with them. But there would be other occasions when I would feel I was taking care of children and trying to juggle and complete many demands of the day. Then I confess I might not like spending time with my kids, especially if I felt they were distracting me from duties, phone calls, laundry, bills and other necessities required to keep our household in motion through the week. If I were a working woman, I can imagine I might sometimes like watching TV more than caring for kids; TV might be the only activity in my day that wouldn’t ask much of me.

But is it okay to say that sometimes it isn’t that fun to be with kids? From the article Tyler Cowan quoted.

“When people are asked how much they enjoy spending time with their kids they think of all the nice things—reading them a story, going to the zoo,” said University of Michigan psychologist Norbert Schwarz, a co-author of the Science article. “But they don’t take the other times into account, the times when they are trying to do something else and find the kids distracting. When we sample all the times that parents spend with their children, the picture is less positive than parents expect. On the other hand, we also find that people enjoy spending time with their relatives much more than they usually assume.”

General reports of what people enjoy may also differ from descriptions of how people actually feel in a specific situation because many people hesitate to report socially inappropriate feelings. This is less of a problem when they report on specific episodes. “Saying that you generally don’t enjoy spending time with your kids is terrible,” Schwarz said, “but admitting that they were a pain last night is quite acceptable.” The new Day Reconstruction Method provides a better picture of people’s daily experiences by improving accurate recall of how they felt in specific situations.

I find this angle refreshing, I confess. I think it should be acceptable to say that sometimes parenting is difficult. As moms and dads we all have moments of desperation. I don’t find changing diapers to be satisfying, and I don’t think I should be ashamed to say that. But I do enjoy chatting with my kids while I’ve got them on the changing table. Taking care of kids may not be fun. But interacting with them is.

This study highlighted a new happiness measurement tool. So perhaps the assumptions about people preferring TV to children and the statements made at the beginning of the New York Times piece are taken out of context.

Glen Whitman:

This oversight highlights a pitfall of the new “happiness measurement” literature, which attempts to measure people’s satisfaction, and the rationality of their choices, by eliciting subjective assessments of happiness from test subjects. The problem is that such assessments will tend to reflect the agents’ feelings at the moment the question is asked, rather than reflecting overall effects of activities across time. In addition, the survey responses do not necessarily measure the “all-inclusive” form of satisfaction that is relevant for judging the rationality of individual actions; instead, they may indicate judgments about more narrow forms of satisfaction, such as instantaneous hedonic pleasure. That kind of satisfaction is assuredly relevant to making good choices, but it is very far from the whole story.

I have Jay McCarthy to thank for the economics blogs in my aggregator. If Jay liked it and linked to it, it must be good, I figured, and in went the RSS feed. I’ve learned as I’ve been reading. It’s been an education. I didn’t realize how much of life is determined by economic decisions like this one…;-)

Tags: news

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tina // Dec 15, 2004 at 10:36 am

    … hmm… interesting study about these working women.
    No way would I put watching TV over spending time with Maddy, whether it’s ‘taking care’ of her or ‘doing activities’ with her.
    With my personal experiences, I find that full-time moms have more complaints about taking care of kids; however, I think it is totally ok (to some extend) when any mom says that it’s not always fun to take care of their kids. It’s most likely due to the fact that full-time moms are with kids 24/7. For me, taking care of Maddy hasn’t driven me ‘nuts’. But I’m working, so my time with her is somewhat limited each day.
    I guess I also like to watch TV.. it’s my mindless activity to relax, but I would only do it after Maddy goes to sleep… it’s hard for me to imagine any mom would pick watching TV over watching their kids… odd.

  • 2 enochchoi@yahoo.com // Dec 15, 2004 at 11:55 am

    tina, i think it’s the full time moms that are complaining… i know tania doesn’t, but i wouldn’t be surprised if it hadn’t crossed her mind.
    funny thing is that i think nally prefers wiggles to us. those guys jump around more and wear way brighter colors than i’d dare 😉

  • 3 jeffy // Dec 15, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Clark Williams-Derry on Cascadia Scorecard (the blog of the Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch) had an interesting take on this story. He pointed out that both “caring for kids” and “watching tv” actually got nearly identical scores and the reporters all went nuts over the fact that tv edged out kid care. They got a provocative headline, but didn’t tell us anything particularly useful in the process. Clark points out some of the findings of the study that should have been in the headlines if the goal was to inform and not just rile up their readership.


  • 4 Julie // Dec 15, 2004 at 11:54 pm

    Thanks to everyone for comments.

    Jeffy, that’s a great link! What a helpful post. I tried to find the original study article on-line and I coulnd’t. Talk about distortion..!

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