Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School say so:
…women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men.
I am not at all sure how to interpret this finding. It sounds like either the women’s movement was a mistake or subjective happiness is not the right objective.
I’m not sure how to interpret it either, but here are a few thoughts. From one point of view, I want to suggest, it’s not paradoxical at all.
The women’s movement has largely succeeded, opening up a wide range of possibilities for women. That’s a good thing. But with possibilities come expectations. Women are now, in most segments of society, expected to work outside the home. It turns out that having to go to work, for most people, isn’t so great. (My wife chimes in, “Be careful what you wish for!”)
Women express about the same level of job satisfaction as men, indicating that the decline stems neither from women being treated worse in the workplace or taking less desirable jobs. Time use surveys indicate that women and men have seen similar increases in leisure time; it’s not that total time expectations on women have increased because women have to work outside the home while continuing to do housework.
The key factors that emerge as declining for 12th grade women over time are satisfaction with friends and acquaintances, satisfaction with the way leisure time is spent, and satisfaction with the amount of fun they’re having. For older women, key elements may be social as well. Declines in social cohesion, community life, fertility, marriage rates, and the duration and quality of marriages may have a more significant impact on women than men. A majority of American women are now unmarried, a fact that has sweeping implications for politics as well as personal happiness. Declines in religious faith and participation also have an impact; religious people are happier than nonreligious people, and women have traditionally been more religious and more active in religious institutions than men.
It’s important to remember that what my generation thought of as “traditional” gender roles weren’t really traditional at all. They were an artifact of an earlier social movement that purposely removed women from the work force—for the benefit, not of men, but of families, and specifically women and children. Activists from that earlier movement would not be surprised that reversing what they thought of as gains would harm family life, women, and children.
I don’t mean to denounce the women’s movement. It has enabled many women to have active, fulfilling lives they could not otherwise have had. Think of women like my mother, who could have had careers (in her case, in music) but weren’t able to pursue them. Think, too, however, of women like several I know, who find themselves, at forty, with careers but without children or husbands. (They do have ex-husbands, but that doesn’t seem to contribute to happiness.) There has been a cost.
UPDATE: Ann Althouse and Glenn Reynolds have weighed in. Ann: “I think it’s because we think about our feelings so much and care so much about being happy.” Glenn: “Nothing is worse for happiness than a cultivated sense of entitlement.” This leads me to think it’s the fault of Oprah and The View. It also prompts me to wonder about another explanation for the gender gap. Maybe women, especially unmarried women, are more likely to vote Democratic because they’re more likely to be unhappy. Happy people tend to vote Republican; unhappy people tend to vote Democratic.