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.


EB

TC, you don't sound necessarily naive. You sound like someone who is young and in love with life.

Don't let the world take that away from you.

A Grouch

#2. It is a very small group of people who are lucky enough to find careers in the workplace that are satisfying and well-suited to your personality. When I hear women complain about how being a housewife and/or mother is mind-numbing, stultifying, and dull, I can only think that it could be worse: you could be stuck being the breadwinner and be forced trudge to a crummy job every day and have the exact same feeling.

Adrian Bailey

#28 "While living in London I met this very intelligent Ukrainian guy 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."

He's got that backwards.

Kimmitt

Since pretty much every chronically ill person I know is basically unhappy and pretty much every happy person I know is basically healthy, I'd be interested in how women's self-evaluations of health have changed in the past 35 years.

Separately, if crime rates have increased during that period, then a rational evaluation of the probability of sudden loss of physical and mental health would also push down happiness.

Princess Leia

Pretty happy over here, but some people have called me a pollyanna.

Sometimes I wish I had more money and free time. I hate dealing with mean people and getting cavities filled, etc.

Gratitude's the attitude, though I suppose having some independence and choice makes for greater happiness.

It's in my head that I am too outspoken and my looks are too unconventional for a traditional marriage. I just concentrate on living a purposeful life, married or not.

live usa

I just spent a year living on poverty level wages as a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer, and I couldn't wait to finish my term. Is that enough to make me miserable? I don't think so.
http://www.etoxtr.com/

Augusta

I'm a 40-year old female professor with no kids and a great long-term relationship. I'm mostly pretty happy. It seems to me that the things that make me most happy are areas where my life overlaps with a kind of "guy's life" -- I have total financial autonomy, great satisfaction in work achievements, enough money to go out to eat when I don't feel like cooking, interesting colleagues to talk to, and total leisure time when I'm not working.

The things that make me most unhappy all have to do with being female. At 40 I already feel like I am "old" with respect to attractiveness. I have to seriously struggle to maintain an attractive weight, while my guy colleagues are snacking on doughnuts and relaxing with beer. For whatever reason, as a woman, I don't feel at ease in the workplace. Things my guy colleagues take in stride-- like interpersonal disagreements -- weigh heavily on me. I feel if I am critical or demanding, I'll be thought less of.

So I'm not surprised at the results of the study. But I also think these reasons don't fit neatly into any of the ones Levitt lists.

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Alex C

Any reply to Language Log's analysis that there really is no "Happiness Gap" and that this entire "paradox" is merely shoddy and sensationalist science journalism?

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004981.html

SP

The violent crime rate has been going down over the last few decades, not up. It isn't actual crimes against women that are making them unhappy. Fear of violent crimes is another story.

L Zoel

I would be most tempted to agree with 4) if not for the fact that it doesn't explain why surveys haven't also shown a decline in the happiness of men. Are women somehow more susceptible to having their perception of happiness changed in a survey then men, and if so, why?

staje

I would suggest that the bombardment of media that women face may also play a role in perceived happiness. There are tremendous pressures to be perfect in ALL aspects of life and to conform to some pretty strict standards as far as appearance is concerned. I think incredible prevalence of these messages create a general sense of inadequacy that can lead to perceived unhappiness.

Terry

There is a 5th potential factor: TV

Americans spend half of *all* their
leisure time watching TV. Could TV
explain the happiness reduction (felt
by both sexes) over the past 50 years?

From this article about a study done
by a team of economists from the University
of Zurich:

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2005/06/28/1119724635649.html

"The team had access to data from a European
survey in which 42,000 people were asked:
"All things considered, how satisfied are
you with your life as a whole nowadays?"
They were also asked how much TV they watched.
The team found that the people most satisfied
with their lives were those who watched TV
the least."

"The effect was large. One of the most important
predictors of happiness (for men) is whether
they are married. The effect of not watching
much television is about one third as big."

"The team was left with a paradox. Watching
TV made people feel good while they were doing
it, but seemed to make them less satisfied
overall."

"Other activities affect us in the same sort
of way. One is smoking. Cigarettes hurt smokers,
but they do so slowly. Immediately, they offer
relaxation - which becomes addictive."

"Bruno Frey could see how television might
act like that. It offers an immediate benefit
- relaxation, with the costs not apparent until
later. Those costs include tiredness, weak
social relationships and insufficient attention
to study and careers."

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Tony

Women have bought the lie: You can have it all; you can be SuperMom, WonderWife and CaptainCareer. But, you can't. Nothing to do with being women; men can't have it all either. Up until the past 20 to 30 years, Men went to work and Women raised the kids, generally. For those of you a little older (35+ probably), think about your dad...how often did you see him? Dads sacrificed time with the kids to work and Moms took care of the house and kids. Now, there was some 'cross-over', but I guess the point is everyone makes sacrifices and you hope they are the right ones. BTW, you cannot compare the superrich or hollyweird types. 'Raising kids' with a cook, personal assistant and 3 or 4 nannies, etc doesn't really count. That's not realistic.

Britgirl

The perception that women want to work is what is making me and most of my female collegues unhappy. We all work because we have to - our partners cannot earn enough on their own to support their families. Nearly all of us would prefer to be back in the home looking after our families. Feminism has not proved to be what a large number of women want or ever wanted.

jacob

Lets consider:
Men and women are built differently for different purposes
Men's and women's brains are built differently. So what makes for a fulfilled happy life are different.

Modern life at this point probably isn't conducive to happiness in either the male or female point of view.

VJ

I like how the comments answer themselves.

"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?"

Ah, yah, uh huh. If lack of marriage is causing unhappiness, what about:
"Men still don't do their share around the house - and it's *still* considered “helping out”."

And:
"Does anyone want to go back to the days when women were financially dependent on men, especially at a time when there is a 50% divorce rate?"

So hey you, marriage-pushers: 50% of people are divorcing because they have too much happiness? And after they marry, they get the aforementioned house-chore division?

In the 1970s I was challenging the norms that one had to get married and squeeze out some babies. (Successfully too.) I thought that more people would challenge that in time. But a few decades later, apparently women are still gobbling up the belief that:
"You can have it all; you can be SuperMom, WonderWife and CaptainCareer."

Yeah, men don't have to think about having it all, they just do it. But still, the unchallenged underlying assumptions that you just gotta be a wife and mommy.

And then there's:
"Men and women are built differently for different purposes."

Women's biggest pain is idiots who say something plausible sounding (because we are biologically different) like this, with an underneath hatred that wants to assign and dictate those purposes to other people: "Hey - your purpose is to produce babies!"

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JN

Reproduction control, what crap. If I murdered my baby I would be unhappy too.

EB

You're 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

— Posted by technomom

Thank you JoAnn. I couldn't have said it better myself.

I hadn't realized how much I was doing for my kids until I was reading a book and the list of possible tasks in a home were broken down by the age of the children. I looked around and realized, I hadn't taught my children how to pick up, so why should I be angry when they did not? I also hadn't ever said "I need a break. I'm taking one. You guys are all on your own for the day." I never went out without the family in tow.

What a difference it made when I started doing that. I didn't feel caged or overwhelmed or flatly unsupported. I felt understood, loved, and encouraged! I felt appreciated when I came home to a clean house!

Like I said, we women need to state the help we need, not cry when we don't get it.

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EB

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.

And this is the entire issue of housework summed up beautifully. From a woman's view, you men are men, right? Adults? Adults do what is needed because it is needed. That's why women get grumpy about having to ask.

You are right though, asking is the easier way to go about it. Who needs to add stress to a relationship anyway? sheesh... there isn't enough automatically built in?

EB

I do tend to hate it when people are all sun-shiney positive about sucky things like getting older and being female.
It's the same thing when women go through horrendous pain for natural childbirth and then pretend that they “forget all about it” once junior arrives. “Oh, it was really nothing” they prattle on. Hah! I want to smack them hard as a little reminder of what the went through…

You'll have to hate away Rita. I, personally, am inclined to wonder how your blood pressure is. Hate pushes that up so fast that I don't bother with taking the time and effort to really hate most people these days.

As for childbirth, I've done that, x3! I was blessed with quick, easy deliveries, and I DID forget the pain. Of course, I also did NOT scream or curse while in labor and use the sacred act of bringing life into the world as an excuse to berate the father and all life since creation.

I'm not a pollyanna or some ultimate optimist, but really Rita, that bitterness is unhealthy. There are much better mindsets out there, it's all about whether you choose to take the step towards personal responsibility that requires you to change things yourself instead of waiting for the world to change for you. I wish you luck with it.

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