Why Are Women So Unhappy?

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.


Reasons 3 and 4 make sense, but I wouldn't discount reason 2. I am reminded of the book "Self Made Man", where the woman lived as a man for a year and found that being a man was not the walk in the park that she imagined it was going to be.


I wonder how much changes in social expectations make estimations of happiness more difficult. In the 1950's expectations for most women were fairly narrow (take care of your home, keep your husband happy). These expectations are now more nebulous. Does this uncertainty lead to unhappiness? Does it make evaluation of happiness more difficult. Also women tend to be the target of madison avenue more so than men. Do some of the expectations generated in this sector result in poor self image and ultimately unhappiness. For example the obesity rate has skyrocketed.

Victoria Randell

Why when we're looking at equality do we only look at work? sure we're doing better there but the glass ceiling is at home. Before we had full time jobs at home, now we have full time paid jobs then come home and have another full time job. and we call this progress?

B K Ray

Does this mean that there are some people who are happy? What is that like? I do not know if I am happy. There are people I envy for various reasons, but I do not know if they are happy either. How do we know when we are happy? Is the only alternative unhappy? What is happy?

Mike Anderson

fewer people today are getting married

So if a woman isn't married by 25, she's got even less of a chance of finding anyone and having a family. So she can look forward to working for the next 40 years and retiring --alone. And we wonder why she's unhappy?


I think the problem is wholly #4 - happiness is probably the most subjective thing ever, and yet researchers try to objectively observe it.


YES, Victoria! 40 years ago a woman could measure her progress and goals on a set of indicators- children and housework. It was boring and stifling, but easy to measure. Now we have to measure those as well as professional indicators. And my husband STILL doesn't do laundrey. Or cleaning. Or the grubby parts of childcare. Given the choice, I'd happily go off to work and not worry about the toilet germs because I knew my spouse was going to clean the bathroom. Unfortunately, I know I have to get up an hour early to get that done if I'm going to make it to work on time.

On the other hand, my 10 year old is halfway thru Freakonomics, so we've had interesting talks on the way into school lately.


I'm glad a man finally explained this.


It's the workplace. The doors may be open, but it's difficult to be a mother and a worker in the workplace. It's not difficult to be a father and a worker, though.

The other factor I can think of is that there is enormous pressure on women to look a certain way. I think we were always marginalized as we got older, but now we have the tools to do Extreme Makeovers on ourselves...if we have the cash and the desire not to look like ourselves any longer. The clothing is all marketed towards the look of a younger woman, too. Every fashion message sent says that it's not okay to look mature.

I also think that if you spend any time at all watching Dateline's _To Catch a Predator_, it's pretty depressing to think that what middle-aged men really want in a romantic partner is essentially a child, something a grown woman can never be. I just really wonder how many men are trolling for teens compared to how many get caught.


Ian Harris

For several years I've had a theory on this:

I think the media conditions women to be afraid of happiness. Let me explain:

Particularly in the UK, women's magazines and female-orientated TV dramas present happiness only as a precursor to tragedy.

Women's magazines are sold on 'real-life' stories - where ordinary women experience extraordinary events. These stories typically begin by painting the subject's life as rosy - a recent wedding, a new child, a new job - until tragedy strikes! Invariably a brain tumour, an affair, or a murder.

TV 'soap' dramas also present happiness only as a guaranteed harbinger of misery. When a characters has an episode where everything goes well, the viewer knows that calamity is imminent!

The result: women begin to see happiness as 'tempting fate'.

Now, of course, this is probably complete rubbish. But you've got to admit it's an interesting theory.


Mark Lieberman did a pretty solid critique of the reporting on this study over at Language Log. It seems pretty hard to generalize much from these trends.



I think you all overlook the "Cinderella" factor.

Girls are raised on fairy tales about a prince who comes to rescue her. Then, when a girl is older, there is much anticipation of a wonderful young man who will wisk her away to a wedding and implant her in her own home, complete with picket fence, child/children, and the dog to run muddy footprints across the floor.

Well, reality sets in. There are bills to be paid. Children do NOT do what they're told all the time, no matter what Beaver did on TV! Husbands and wives (even partners who are sharing space) WILL disagree. Careers will have stressful times and sometimes that stress WILL bleed over at home, just as stress in the home bleeds to the workplace.

The reason women are unhappy and marriages struggle is not complex, people.

It's based in these 2 facts:

1 - Very few people have half a clue that they don't have the skills they need to enter a relationship. Then when they get into one, they do not know how to make it last.

2 - The ONLY person who can make you happy is YOU. Looking to others, to careers, to childrearing, etc, is NOT the way to find happiness.

My suggestion, start teaching children how to handle interpersonal relationships, and intimate relationships (not sex ed, emotional IQ!) when they're very young. First by example, and reinforced by textbooks in the home and the school.

If people stop looking for a "perfect family," start understanding that "perfect" is a myth, and learn to accept, love, and respect the people around them for who they are rather than trying to change them, relationships and personal happiness will improve, for men AND for women.



I'm with Josh (#11). As presented by Lieberman, only the credulous will take these kinds of "studies" with any kind of seriousness. Particularly something as amorphously defined as "happiness". Ultimately, things have changed for most women since the 1970's, and they may perceive these changes as affecting their happiness, but who's to say that "happiness" hasn't changed more? I'd be more interested in an essay that reflected on how happiness has changed for a particular woman. And in fact, a good start to that is "The Happiness Myth" by Jennifer Michael Hecht.


Josh (#11) posted an excellent link. If you don't have time to read the entire Lieberman article, look at the first graph... especially if you are a woman -- it will make you feel happier than the headline to this blog entry did.


"On the other hand, my 10 year old is halfway thru Freakonomics, so we've had interesting talks on the way into school lately."

Are you using Freakonomics to teach the Birds and the Bees? I ask this because I really don't know how many 10 year olds are going be interested in the relationship between abortion and crime.


Girls are raised on fairy tales about a prince who comes to rescue her. Then, when a girl is older, there is much anticipation of a wonderful young man who will wisk her away to a wedding and implant her in her own home, complete with picket fence, child/children, and the dog to run muddy footprints across the floor.

Currently augmented by the prince doing half the housework. Probably equally unlikely.


Who cares what women think.



I think guarding oneself from sexual assault 24/7 can make a person pretty unhappy. It sounds far-fetched, but the fact is, most women do this without even realizing it. Checking the backseat of the car before getting in the driver's seat, checking behind the shower curtain, making sure you have money for a cab home, freaking out when the car breaks down at night in the middle of nowhere, just everyday stuff. How can one talk about ANYTHING regarding women without acknowledging the daily possibility of rape?


Does anyone know the statistics on depression rates and birth control? Could the happiness rates be artificially deflated by large numbers of women taking birth control?

Another Josh

Are you surprised that Chivalry is dead, in a place where nice guys finish last?