Alas and alack, and woe is us. Happiness is more elusive for women than ever, according to a recent study.
Women’s reported happiness has fallen relative to men’s happiness, and it’s done so quite consistently in industrialized countries, across class and educational and regional lines. A mere thirty-five years ago women were happier than men, but now men are happier than women.
“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” is the title of the study involved, which can be found in its entirety here. This is the abstract:
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.
It is indeed a paradox, and a mystery. But mysteries invite speculation, and so I’ll climb aboard and guess. The explanation can’t be something obvious like divorce, or the tug between career and home for mothers; those things have been corrected for demographically in the research and found to be unrelated to the changes in reported happiness.
The declining happiness effect appears to be so pervasive and consistent that it’s not just some artifact of a particular test, either. The change seems real. There is one startling exception to the trend, however—black women are happier than they were before in the absolute sense, and their reported happiness has not changed relative to black men:
An important exception is that this phenomenon has not occurred similarly across racial groups. African-American women have become happier over this period in parallel with rising happiness among African-American men, implying little change in their gender happiness gap. This rise in African-American women’s happiness has occurred as part of an overall rise in the happiness of blacks, a rise that has eliminated two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap.
So this has occurred despite the fact that blacks in general are still less happy than whites, although gaining on them. Let’s put this finding aside for a moment and go on.
This is the pattern of the happiness decline in the other women:
The top lines show that in the 1970s women were more likely than men to report being “very happy”, while this differential began to evaporate in the 1980s. The bottom two lines show that in the 1970s men and women were roughly equally likely to report being “not too happy” and a gap emerges in the 1990s with women more likely than men to report unhappiness.
So some change began in the 1980s and continues to the present. All sorts of statistical analyses were performed by the researchers to tease out what it might be, and they can’t ascribe it to anything they can measure. The trend of decline in happiness for white women includes Hispanics (apparently even wise Latinas are susceptible), and was more or less equal across age groups, employment, marriage, education, and childbearing status.
This is fascinating, although I have no clue what it means:
Trends in male happiness mirror…trends in male earnings—men with a college degree or more have become happier over time, while men with a high school degree or less have become less happy over time. The patterns for women however are not similar: women of all education groups have become less happy over time with declines in happiness having been steepest among those with some college
In Europe it’s a bit different although similar: men and women have both had a rise in satisfaction, but a differential one so that the gap between them is similar to that in the US.
My leading theory is that perhaps certain other trends in our modern world—increased choice and increased pressure to do it all, the decline of the family, rising expectations for happiness and for achievement in all spheres of life, and the perception (correct or incorrect) of the world being a dangerous place—unite to cause an increased feeling of instability and “things fall apart, the center does not hold,” and that something about women’s particular emotional makeup causes these things to affect them somewhat more negatively than they do men (I guess it’s a good thing I’m not the President of Harvard; that kind of talk could get me fired).
This still wouldn’t explain the differences for black women, but I’ll attempt to tackle that in a moment.
The researchers seem to agree that my theory is a plausible, if unproven, one:
…there may be other important socio-economic forces that have made women worse off. A number of important macro trends have been documented—decreased social cohesion (Putnam 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker 2006). While each of these trends have impacted both men and women, it is possible for even apparently gender-neutral trends to have gender-biased impacts if men and women respond differently to these forces. For example, if women are more risk averse than men, then an increase in risk may lower women’s utility relative to that of men.
Women’s affiliative needs may in general be greater, too, and in recent decades they may have had fewer opportunities to indulge in the sort of group support they used to find almost as a matter of course. I think that may matter.
Looking at my mother’s life and the things that made her happy, I’ve observed that not only was there much more social stability then, but my mother’s world involved a great deal of social interaction, both among the women themselves during the day and in the evenings in mixed social groups. The women depended on each other and had more free time and were therefore more available to each other.
My mother was also part of a group that had for the most part known each other since childhood, since few moved away. They could count on the fact that their marriages would probably last, and they perceived their kids as growing up in a stable environment with fewer risks and temptations to go wrong. In short, my mother was part of a seemingly stable group and world—despite the upheaval of the 60s, which was small relative to what has transpired since. Whatever her milieu may have lacked in excitement and change it made up for in a sense of security, community, and shared values.
But what of today’s happier black women? It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether more black women see their lives as continuing to get better, whereas women of other races may be more likely to feel that theirs have peaked and may even be in decline. And/or perhaps black women also have more group support available to them, and are part of a larger and tighter community, whereas women of other races feel more isolated.
I admit that these explanations are fairly lame, but they’re the best I can come up with at the moment. Feel free to offer your own.