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.


Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Men still don't do their share around the house - and it's *still* considered "helping out". Meanwhile, women now have to not only do housework but also work outside the home - often, full-time. Then there are all the single, older women aging within a society that has zero interest in them, because of the extreme emphasis on youthful hotness. Just look at the pairings of most hollywood movie couples: George Clooney gets the young babes onscreen and no one blinks an yee. Yet, just about everyone goes nuts if Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton get paired up with a younger guy. Hell, even if Nicole Kidman does.

Women, on average, still make a lot less than men. Hey, men are probably unhappy, too. But it still often sucks to be a woman. #5 and #18 bring up good points, as well.

discordian

all you people whining about how aging women solicit little interest must not be getting all the spam about "MILFs" and "Hot 40+ Babes Want Your Sex" and "Watch Hot Older Wives in Action".

Jeremy

Women have career and lifestyle options today that didn't exist for them 35 years ago, and research shows that people who are given the most options (or choices) often are the unhappiest.

EB

#13 "And in fact, a good start to that is “The Happiness Myth” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. "

THAT is a WONDERFUL book! Definitely recommended reading for anyone who really wants to find a sense of "happiness" and have it last.

EB

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.

I think that's pretty unfair to fathers, and to men in general.

The reality I've seen, and admit to seeing it even in myself, is that women tend to take over domestic duties and not ask the men for help. So, if things are harder, is it because men aren't helping women (which the study says is not the case) or is it that we women need to stop being closet control freaks and admit that we can't do everything without a little help now and then?

As far as the reality in men, there are plenty of men who work a full time job and then go home and keep going. They help kids with homework and projects, work on home maintenance or repair projects, mow the yard, play with the kids, and still try to stay connected to their mates. Some of these men are even active in their communities, heading up church groups, working with youth, leading neighborhood improvement projects.

Saying that things are harder for mothers in the workforce than they are for fathers just is not based on fact. I was a single mother for almost a decade and I have to admit that I took advantage of the leeway I was offered for things like making it to concerts and plays, or when the kids were sick. I also worked, not hard enough, but well enough, that I have yet to be passed over for promotions. sometimes, when the person doing the promoting was a mother, it actually worked in my favor.

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dix

Rita #21, at least you're not bitter ;-)

Does anybody really base their happiness on who George Clooney dates? Would you want to date a George Clooney? I'll bet he does nothing around the house.

Antonio Galvan

I don't think only women are unhappier now than then, but society as a whole. The problem is that society is pushing so hard to satisfy the artificially-created needs and desires, that we no longer have time to enjoy what's really important and meaningful. In the end, when we finally have a lot and achieved a lot, but we realize it was really not that much worth it, we get depressed. A professor used to exemplify a very similar situation with the term "post-on-credit-purchase-depression". She said that the excitement of buying something on credit transforms into depression once you start paying for it. Maybe this could be the same effect. Women wanted bigger jobs, salaries, responsibilities, education, and in the end they realized it is not so much worth it... But as I said, it is not only a women's thing.

Charles

While leaving in London I met this very intelligent Ukrainian guy (engineer who spoke at least four languages) who left his country when it was still part of the USSR. When I asked him about the differences between living under a communist regime and a capitalist one, he said that the former is bad for your freedom but good for your mental health being the opposite now that he was in London. Despite his background, he was making pizzas and was unable to find his way out through the maze of choices.

As some have already pointed out, expectations (external and self-inflicted) and choices might have something to do with it.

Robert Stein

All this suggests that inequality has not disappeared but morphed. The educated women Betty Friedan found unhappy as housewives 50 years ago now have careers but are still doing most of the caring for homes, children and aging parents.

If there were a companion movement to Feminism, Masculinism might examine to what extent all this is due to unfair expectations of women or just the fabled insensitivity of men who are happy to spend their free time drinking beer and watching ball games on TV.

http://ajliebling.blogspot.com/2007/09/happiness-gap-between-women-and-men_27.html

Celeste

EB, I think that different things are expected of mothers than of fathers. I also think motherhood is a different emotional experience than is fatherhood. I'm not talking about after-school issues and housework, things that everybody deals with after the whistle blows. Maybe it depends where you live, but where I live the mothers are really expected to be the go-to person where the child is concerned. Pediatricians act surprised if the father brings the child in. Daycares do not expect to deal with the father over issues that come up. Schools expect mothers to volunteer rather than fathers. The cultural expectation is that men's job as fathers is to bring in income, and anything else they do is an extra that they choose to do.

Sure, some men do more. I just don't know of men who do more without being asked--the presumption is always that they are "helping" with the woman's workload, never accountable for seeing that it gets done without being asked. You see women as micromanaging control freaks--I see us the ones whose lives fall apart if things don't get done.

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Craig Landrum

From long experience, I think men and women have much different expectations about what it takes to trigger either gender into doing housework. For example, my wife simply doesn't pay attention to the carpet or floors or simply has a much lower gross-out level than me for those particular items, so I usually end up vaccuuming and mopping. However, she has a much higher threshold when it comes to stuff on "her" kitchen counter - if she didn't put it there, it Must Be Removed. And I find that I sometimes take flack in the mornings for my failure the previous night to help with laundry or dishwashing - tasks that she expected me to do, but never asked me to do. And there is where I think some of the problems lie - women often seem to be uncomfortable asking men to do some things around the house, expecting them to simply realize that they need to be done, whereas men cheerfully watch TV or tune the motorcycle without the faintest clue of the storm brewing on the horizon - but would be more than happy to do their share if asked to do so. Yes, ladies, I know you *shouldn't* have to ask, but then it only takes 5 seconds and you can make your life a lot easier.

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technomom

Celeste,

Best thing I ever did when my kids were young was to go on a couple of business trips. When mom's not around, it's amazing what the kids and husband can accomplish.

Yeah, beds weren't made and the kitchen could have been scrubbed a little more, but they got fed, made it to school dressed in clean clothes, did homework every night, and by the time I got home my husband had them making their own lunches in the morning.

Your enabling their behavior if you let them get away with "helping". Let them "do" entirely on their own for a while and you'll see what they can accomplish.

In other words, don't be a micromanaging control freak. :-) Your life will not fall apart, it may actually come together.

JoAnn

Aaron Scott

Assuming that the information gathered is correct, and women today are truly less happy than women were 30 years ago, I have a possible answer....

Very simply, the "definition" of "those things which make us happy" has changed. For all of us.

Thirty years ago, if you didn't have air conditioning, well, that was not all that uncommon. Today, if you don't have A/C, well, you likely feel it much more acutely due to peer pressure, etc.

And 30 years ago, 1977 to be exact, coming out of the sixties, might have been a time when people felt more purposeful. They were fighting for (or against) something, perhaps.

Another possibility is that the number of must-have items have made our lives much more busy. We thought cell phones were a blessing (and they are when you're broke down on the side of the road)...but now we can be called (hence, bothered) at any time at all.

Lastly, I think health may have something to do with it. Assuming that the food additives that have been/become a part of our diet over the past 30 years are not causing us to feel unhappy, then certainly we might argue that the effects of our diets--obesity, sickness, etc.--would surely weigh upon us. A person with 40 lbs. of excess baggage TODAY might feel much more sensitive to it that someone with 40 lbs. of excess weight 30 years ago.

And, of course, the cloud our nation has been in since 2001 might also contribute to this "less happy" state.

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JB

I also think that this is another case of people lying on surveys. But it's not the women lying. It's the men.

Hear me out: With men, there is much more of a stigma attached to whining or being depressed, whether it be clinical or not. There's a real "suck it up" tradition in the Western world among men, where as among women we have the whole talk-it-out-on-Oprah thing going.

Given all that, I doubt that as many men would normally admit to be unhappy as women would. Now, I know that there's a difference between unhappiness and depression but they are not entirely unrelated and I would think that that men's reluctance to admit unhappiness is probably highly correlated with the already documented reluctance to face depression.

See this article:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9502E0DC1F3EF936A15755C0A9669C8B63

EB

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 thought a bit before deciding to actually reply to this comment.

Firstly, who says a woman has to be married to "have a family" anyway? Secondly, since when does marriage equate to having a family? Women, and some wonderful mothers included, have children without getting married. Women also get married and choose to never give birth to a child.

Lastly, marriage and children is no guarantee that you won't be alone when you retire. A close family friend married, had 3 children and raised them with her husband. They both worked and the week after he retired, he died from a massive heart attack. Their children moved to different parts of the country and built lives there before this event. She was left with the house of her dreams, a tidy sum in the bank, freedom to finally travel, and the man she thought she'd do these things with... gone.

Is she "alone?" Not in the least. She became active in her church, she travels constantly, often taking friends with her, but just as often alone. She is living, healthy, well, and enjoying her life.

I know women who chose never to marry who have managed much the same for themselves.

People who think that being single means ending up all alone as a miserable shut in need to get out more. A LOT more.

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LivePaola

I wouldn't discount the ever-increasing expectations for female perfection in our society. 35 years ago, there was probably less of a need for campaigns like Dove's "Evolution" and the new "Onslaught" (watch it here: http://www.adverblog.com/archives/003233.htm). Supposing the scores reported by Stevenson and Wolfers actually mean anything, this is truly a case when a video is worth more than a thousand words.

Tucker

One point brought up rather often in this discussion here is the gender division of non-market labor. This country is getting pretty good. There are a few ways that this can and has been measured. I'm having a hard time tracking down the article I was thinking of but there have been a number of studies about convergence in non-market (mostly domestic) labor in American and in Western Europe (especially France and with the notable exception of Italy). Japan also lags significantly, and many people blame the falling population on this issue. However it would be incorrect, elitist and perhaps even racist to assume that domestic work is all non-market labor and/or that an equitable gender division of labor within a society requires an equal division of domestic labor. One interesting point I saw brought up in the article was the issue of elder care which is becoming a more important element of unpaid work that is in many cultures allocated towards women. It is possible that this specific task could undermine some of convergence.

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scott cunningham

I like #3. That's a very interesting point. The measurement error is in the old measure of happiness. I wonder if you could test that by possibly finding subsets of women who were less likely to misrepresent their happiness back in the old days and compare them to the same similar type today.

Ben

I want to repost the link posted by Josh (poster #11), which unlike anything the Times has published or blogged about shows the actual data in this study. Look at the graph -- do women seem "so unhappy" compared to men to you?

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004965.html

I already knew that science reporting today is a joke, but I would have expected better from a blog by an economics professor.

Jenn

Obesity is on the rise in the U.S. over the past 50 years, and yet our society's standards of attractiveness have gone the other direction. The fact that as each year goes on a fewer and fewer percentage of women can fit into this ever narrowing category of attractiveness has to be hard on a lot of women's self esteem. That and as media and advertising has become ever more pervasive in our lives, the reminder of whether we do or do not fit this aesthetic is more and more constant. That can be a huge source of pressure and stress that should not be taken lightly. Tack that on to having to take care of a house and have a job and be active in the community all while looking good with a smile and still trying to find time to enjoy yourself? Constant reminders of whether or not you fit in to this idea do more to one's self esteem than many might think. It's just another compounding factor.

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