December 7, 2012

To Die Young And Unhappy

(Or, how misleadingly titled "studies" create sensationalism.)

Two flawed studies today revealed that if I keep to my way of life I will die young and unhappy. Or at least younger and less happy than others.

No, not because I have a crazy wild lifestyle and party hard and make risky choices, but because I am childless and non-religious. Apparently, not having children causes a death rate of two to four times as high as those who have children and not being religious robs me of happiness.

The first study: The one that says the childless have a higher death rate than the child-bearing looked at couples in Denmark treated for infertility, and collected data from birth and death registries, IVF records, hospital admissions, psychiatric services, and labor market statistics. During the 14 year study, a large number of women and larger number of men died and a very large number of women and slightly less large number of men were diagnosed with a mental illness. "Having a child cut the risk of early death, particularly among women." Childless men and women are 2 and 4 times more likely to die from circulatory disease, cancer, or accidents than those who conceive or adopt. To their credit, the study does end by saying correlation is not causation, so I guess there's that.

The flaws: First and foremost, the title of the study is quite misleading. Death is not 2-4 times more likely for childless couples because everyone dies. Obviously that wasn't the point, but I will still point out a second flaw in the title, which is acknowledged in the study itself: there is no differentiation between voluntarily childless couples and involuntarily childless couples. It also points out a glaring problem with the whole having children quest some people are on: if mental illness (depression) and a risk of an earlier than normal death is so prevalent among the involuntarily childless, why not adopt? The study recorded that only 1,500 of 21,000 couples treated for infertility adopted (15,000 conceived). This means there were 4,500 couples who were unable to conceive a child and chose not to adopt... I'm guessing these were the couples that were diagnosed with depression and died earlier than the others. The study showed that couples that adopted could halve their risk of mental illness, which makes sense: if you spend your whole adult life lamenting your infertility but don't adopt one of the very needy children in foster care because it's not your blood? I can see how you'd get depressed. And there was the awesome inclusion of "rates of mental ill health were similar between couples with and without children of their own, with the exception of those with drug and alcohol problems." Seems a little unnecessary to include that tidbit... 

The second study: The one that says religious people are happier than non-religious people looked at why this is found to be true ("considerable" research has been done on the topic). Turns out religion gives people a sense of purpose, is a resource for coping with life and fears, and provides them with a social network. Religion is a social activity and since social connectedness is a major contributor to individual happiness it stands to reason that the religious are happier. It's not just having a social circle, though, it's having the support of that social circle. Like the previous study, they do note that correlation is not causation and religion does not predict happiness by itself. (There was also mention of a separate study that looked at the repeal of blue laws, or laws that made it illegal for stores to be open on Sunday, and it found that women were happier when blue laws existed. In an almost funny manner, the writer of the study suggested that church makes women happier than shopping does.)

The flaws: The study points out that religion is only associated with greater happiness in countries where most of the people are religious, like in the United States (we also have the great fortune of equating Christianity with patriotism). The study is based on the premise that if most people form social ties through their religion, and you're not religious, you will have a hard time finding social support and will be less happy because of it. This also assumes that religious people won't want to befriend a non-religious person. The study does end by saying that it's not religion that makes people happy, it's the social ties religion facilitates that makes people happy, but I guarantee you a lot of people don't get past that goddamn sensationalist title.

My bottom line: Taking these titles to heart, I'll have a 4 times higher risk of death by cancer, an accident or circulatory disease if I remain childless and I'll waste away my remaining days unhappy with my life due to lack of social support. Which actually kind of makes sense: religious people have more kids than average, so if I'm childless I'm already kind of out of the loop, and if I'm childless and non-religious I'm pretty much just screwed.

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