I saw Justin Wolfers a few weeks back, and I joked with him that it had been months since I’d seen his research in the headlines. It didn’t take him long to fix that — he and his partner in life and economics, Betsey Stevenson, made the news twice last week. The first time was in the form of an op-ed here in the New York Times pointing out that the media had totally misinterpreted newly released statistics on divorce. While the reports had trumpeted the new data as evidence that Americans today are more likely than ever to get divorced, Stevenson and Wolfers show that this pattern is purely an artifact of a change in data collection methods. In fact, fewer people today are getting married, but the ones who do are more likely to stay together.
In addition, Stevenson and Wolfers released a new study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” that is bound to generate a great deal of controversy. By almost any economic or social indicator, the last 35 years have been great for women. Birth control has given them the ability to control reproduction. They are obtaining far more education and making inroads in many professions that were traditionally male-dominated. The gender wage gap has declined substantially. Women are living longer then ever. Studies even suggest that men are starting to take on more housework and child-raising responsibilities.
Given all these changes, the evidence presented by Stevenson and Wolfers is striking: women report being less happy today than they were 35 years ago, especially relative to the corresponding happiness rates for men. This is true of working women and stay-at-home moms, married women and those that are single, the highly educated and the less educated. It is worse for older women; those aged 18-29 don’t seem to be doing too badly. Women with kids have fared worse than women without kids. The only notable exception to the pattern is black women, who are happier today than they were three decades ago.
There are a number of alternative explanations for these findings. Below is my list, which differs somewhat from the list that Stevenson and Wolfers present:
1. Female happiness was artificially inflated in the 1970s because of the feminist movement and the optimism it engendered among women. Yes, things have gotten better for women over the last few decades, but maybe change has happened a lot more slowly than anticipated. Thus, relative to these lofty expectations, things have been a disappointment.
2. Women’s lives have become more like men’s over the last 35 years. Men have historically been less happy than women. So it might not be surprising if the things in the workplace that always made men unhappy are now bedeviling women as well.
3. There was enormous social pressure on women in the old days to pretend they were happy even if they weren’t. Now, society allows women to express their feelings openly when they are dissatisfied with life.
4. Related to No. 3 in the preceding paragraph: these self-reported happiness measures are so hopelessly garbled by other factors that they are completely meaningless. The ever-growing army of happiness researchers will go nuts at this suggestion, but there is some pretty good evidence (like this paper by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan) that declarations of happiness leave a lot to be desired as outcome measures.
Stevenson and Wolfers don’t take a stand on what the most likely explanation might be. If I had to wager a guess, I would say Nos. 3 and 4 are the most plausible.
Meanwhile, I asked my wife what she thought the answer was, but she was too depressed to respond.