Happiness Trends Lead to Some Strange Places

Interdisciplinary research can take you to some unexpected places. You may have heard about a paper that Betsey Stevenson and I wrote a while back, documenting that the average level of happiness among women has trended downward relative to that of men. It’s an interesting fact, and we aren’t quite sure whether it tells us about the reliability of happiness data, the women’s movement, or other changes in men’s and women’s lives.

It is also a fact that seems to capture the public’s imagination — perhaps more than anything else I’ve worked on. The recent publication of the paper led to another round of discussion. First it was Maureen Dowd, then Newsweek, NPR, and now it turns out that self-help guru Marcus Buckingham has used this research as the basis for a book telling women how to live their strongest lives. (Don’t ask me; I really don’t know!)

And so Betsey and I found ourselves discussing the paper on Monday, yet again, but this time on The Today Show:

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I certainly never expected a career in economics to lead me to share a green room with singer Harry Connick Jr. or actor Derek Luke, or even to meet a motivational speaker. And while that was it from me, Betsey had an even busier week, as CNN devoted an hour to discussing the paper. Here’s the short version:

And she also spent a full hour discussing the topic on the Canadian talkfest The Agenda:

And despite all the discussion, I’ve got to admit, we are still quite puzzled about just what lies behind “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” But if you have an idea, we’ve posted all of our data, and you can test hypotheses to your heart’s content.


it probably means women are more honest/open about their emotions- add that to a worldwide recession and you have a rolling down a hill


How about increasing participation in the workforce? There can be no more reliable indicator of increasing misery.


Some of the more obvious explanations are weaker than you might think:

For example, these trends are not caused by women working longer hours than men. We know this because women don't work more hours than men. In a mammoth study of twenty-five countries, ranging from the U.S. to France to Slovenia to Madagascar, men and women were asked to keep track of what they were doing at various times during the day, and then the hours for each activity were calculated. The results: in developed countries, men average 5.2 hours of paid work a day, and 2.7 hours of homework, for a total of 7.9 hours a day; and women average 3.4 hours of paid work, and 4.5 hours of homework, for a total of, yes, 7.9 hours a day. These averages are statistically identical in virtually every developed country in the study: women and men work the same number of total hours in a day. (It is only in less developed countries such as South Africa or Benin, where women have fewer choices and are largely excluded from the workplace, that women actually work more hours per day than men.)

Nor are they caused by gender-based stereotyping. Sure, forty years ago such stereotyping was still dominant--in 1977 74% of men agreed with the statement "Men should be the primary breadwinner and women should be the primary caretaker of home and family." Today, however, that number has fallen to only 42%--which happens to be almost exactly the same as the percentage of women who agree with it (39%). Your opinion of which roles are most appropriate for men and women to play is not now determined by your sex.

Nor, surprisingly, is it caused by women bearing a disproportionate burden of the workload at home, the 'second-shift' as some have labeled it. This explanation falls not because women don't do more cooking, cleaning and child-caring than men; they still do. It falls because when it comes to the sharing of 'home' duties, the trend lines are all moving in the direction you would predict would lead to greater happiness and less stress for women: namely toward greater parity. For example, between 1975 and today women's housework hours declined from twenty-one per week to seventeen, while men's jumped from six to thirteen. In 1977 dads with non-teen kids spent 2 hours with them on an average weekday, while moms spent 3.8 hours. Today moms still spend 3.8 hours, while dads' kid-time has climbed to 3 hours per week day--and if you are a Gen Y dad, you're all the way up to 4.3 hours per day (Gen Y dads actually spend more time with their non-teen kids than do Gen X moms.)



I figure you already probably guess it's multiple factors, but what comes to mind to me is that women are gaining equality with men more and more, and while the shedding of their "womanly" burdens may be slow, the additional "male" responsibilities are piling on faster. That is, many women still feel they have to do certain things to be a good wife (partner) and mother but now many also have as much responsibility as men in bringing home the cash and in the workplace. They may also feel guilt, whether they should or not is irrelevant, many still feel it, that if they devote more time to work or career they are taking away from the care husband (partner) and child(ren).
Like I said this may make sense for some even many women (my wife for example), but it may be other things for other women. You don't say in your article however if women were originally happier than men, and if they are still happier or have now declined below men, you only say their happiness is declining. If woman's happiness is declining and men's is rising than happiness, counter-intuitively, may be a zero sum game, some cultures actually act as if it is.




I believe a few of us asked this question about a year ago at Temple Law, when you presented some of this data last year while discussing your paper revisiting Easterlin's so-called "paradox." How much of this relative trend might be due to women today feeling more entitled to "greater" happiness, and moreover more entitled to express their feelings on the issue?

More productively, I might ask, are there data (whether from the General Social Survey or otherwise) from questions about people's expectations of happiness, willingness to express emotions without stigma, etc?

It may not be that women's happiness has declined, but that women around the world have gotten a lot less shy about sharing their unhappiness openly. But I'm neither a woman nor a stats-competent social scientist, so I'll have to throw it open to discussion.


Congrats to both Justin and Betsey for your media attention. That's always a fun side effect of doing interesting research.

That last video was interesting to me in regards to the disparity of merit in the various claims about happiness and equality. Kudos to Betsey for saying "I don't know the answer to that" when she was asked a question to which she didn't know the answer. That is an important form of honesty in discussions if you hope to gain perspective on an issue. On the other side of the spectrum, Kathy threw up more speculation and straw man arguments than I could keep track of. There is obviously a lot of emotion involved in this discussion for some of the participants.

Betsey, nice job sounding intelligent every time you opened your mouth, and congrats on the new addition to your family.


I think women have worked their way into an identity crisis. In the past it might have been satisfactory to graduate from daughter to sister-friend-lover-wife-mother-grandmother-dearly departed. Women define(d?) themselves by the satisfaction of their one-on-one relations (more so than men). Expand into new roles AND maintain mastery of those held traditionally? That's a tall order. Then again women might lower expectations in one or both (as men have done?). Maybe women already have and can't shake the remorse that the best of both eludes them (equals unhappiness?). Whereas men have been almost entirely emancipated from the stigma of more traditional female roles (to their relief?) accepting that excellence in one may preclude excellence in the other.


What Karl said at #5.

When we measure “happiness,” I suspect we measure the degree to which someone circumstances meet or exceed their expectations. Women, especially since WWII, have built expectations around a world with decreasing levels of discrimination based on gender – and about the importance of these changes to their personal lives. Today women confront the reality that 1) discrimination endures to some extent and 2) personal challenges persist, and new challenges arise, even in a world with diminished sexism.

In contrast, men have had no gender-specific reason to expect that the future would turn out brighter than the past, and therefore had no gender-specific reason for disappointment when it didn't.


Whereas I agree with Karl about the topic of expectations and beeing more open about unhappiness there is another thing I want to throw into discussion - it is Freedom of choice. The last 50 or 100 years women got much more choices which life to live. To have a choice and to know about it seems to give more place for remorse. To put it into econimic terms - however I decide the opportunity costs have increased. So (beeing female myself) I can lead a better life than any of my (female) ancestors and be less happy about it at the same time ;-).


I think that it correlates with a rise in the Religious Right.


Women were a little bit happier than men in the 70s, and now they're still a little bit happier than men, but not by as much. So, if anything, we as a society are approaching better gender equality.

louie one eye

"happiness is a warm gun"