Deciphering the paradox of declining female happiness

happiness-cover-sshot The August publication of a 2007 paper titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness by Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson has created a bit of a media storm recently. Wolfers lists some of the coverage in his NY Times’ Freakonomics blog post: Happiness Trends Lead to Some Strange Places. Strib columnist Katherine Kersten wrote about it last weekend: Does greater equality mean less happiness? The authors, however, "…are still quite puzzled about just what lies behind [the paradox]". I’ve no clue but then I’ve not yet discussed it with Robbie or any other Northfield women. Here’s my chance.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    I’m reading Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert, a marvelously interesting and funny book. He details why we’re all quite bad at predicting what will make us happy. Methinks a generation of women have collectively made this mistake.

    October 6, 2009
  2. I’m reading that too – albeit slowly, and it’s on hold now as I learn lines for “Ah, Wilderness!” Fascinating book.

    October 6, 2009
  3. I hate these studies. Can you ever really account for the external pressures on women to do everything at home (or make sure it gets done) while competing in fields who’s leaders often remain primarily men? Personally, I blame our society.

    We get a guarantee that our job will be there after a three month maternity leave, but no guaranteed salary while away. Child care is private and very costly. Society still typically views women as more responsible for sick kids, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc – things that need not be gender based. Then there are all our role models for female perfection, another gender-based gap.

    Women have come a long way. The answer is not to regress, but to work on societal imbalances.

    October 6, 2009
  4. Scott Oney said:

    Griff: I’m not really sure where the paradox is. Do you think the Stevenson and Wolfers article might have been tongue-in-cheek?

    October 6, 2009
  5. john george said:

    Griff- Actually, your comment, “…we’re all quite bad at predicting what will make us happy” is indeed true. Happiness is subjective and can be affected by many outside factors. It is not the same as satisfaction or joy, although some people seem to equate it that way. I almost posted a story, but I thought better of it.

    October 6, 2009
  6. Griff Wigley said:

    Scott, no, I don’t the article was tongue-in-cheek. I think their use of the word ‘paradox’ might be just a handy way to sum up their finding, ie, women said they wanted X, Y and Z. They now have X, Y and Z and they’re less happy than when they asked for it.

    October 7, 2009
  7. Bright Spencer said:

    There is a lot of pressure on both men and women to perform, look good, etc. For my part, I am happy, content, even joyous on any given day as long as I feel safe from long lasting harm.
    People, both men and women, who want to achieve for money, status, self appreciation will never really be happy for more than a day or two because they never reach their goal of perfection, or if they do not realize that perfection is transitory, like every thing else. Well, that’s my short version anyway.

    October 7, 2009
  8. Scott Oney said:

    Griff: That might be the problem, then. Do Stevenson and Wolfers provide data showing that “women said they wanted X, Y and Z”? I’m not seeing it. If anything, their data show that women back then were happier with what they had than women these days are with what they’ve gotten stuck with. The real paradox may be that researchers continue to see the social changes of the past 35 years as improvements despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    October 7, 2009
  9. David Ludescher said:

    Griff: I took a peek at the paper. The conclusion that this is a paradox is the researchers’ personal opinion, not the paper’s conclusion. I doesn’t strike me that it is paradoxical. The premise that people will be happy if they get what they want is a fallacy.

    October 8, 2009
  10. john george said:

    Griff- Is this study paradoxical because it was done by a couple “docs”, and men to boot!?

    October 8, 2009
  11. john george said:

    Oops! One of them was a woman! My bad!

    October 8, 2009
  12. Patrick Enders said:

    This is not a statistical analysis, but just a gut reaction to the graph of raw “very happy-somewhat happy-not too happy” results over time:

    I look at the graph in the original article: “Figure 1. Happiness in the United States, 1972–2006” on page 8 (or 197) of the linked PDF, and I’m not all that impressed by the reported trend. Looking at the data from 1985-2006, it looks like – apart from a lot of noise – men and women have been largely the same in the degree of happiness and unhappiness over the period of the last 20 years.

    There did seem to be more “very happy” women in the early 70’s, however.

    So maybe the problem is simply this: the early 70’s were a slightly better time to be a woman. Now, we’re all in the same boat.

    If anything, though, these seem to be pretty marginal differences over time. It might be possible that the observed small change in reported happiness could be related to some small real change in a subpopulation of women in a particular situation – though I don’t know which situation (if any), and anyone would be speculating if they claim to know from this study.

    On the other hand, there does seem to be a negative trend from 1974-1995 in the question “In general, how satisfied would you say you personally are with your life today?” – a trend that was more strongly negative in women than in men (page 202 or 13). Such a question moves beyond mere happiness, to “satisfaction,” – which might be considered a comparison of one’s place in life to the life one imagine(d) in one’s aspirations and expectations.

    All in all though, I’d say it’s much more of a mixed bag than the authors could really justify saying, as Griff (you) summarized:

    “I think their use of the word ‘paradox’ might be just a handy way to sum up their finding, ie, women said they wanted X, Y and Z. They now have X, Y and Z and they’re less happy than when they asked for it.”

    At most, it might be true of some women.

    Interestingly, the “satisfaction” measure improved from 1995 to 2000, and we have no data on that measure since.

    October 8, 2009
  13. Griff Wigley said:

    And the authors are a couple.

    October 10, 2009
  14. Griff Wigley said:

    Felicity, you wrote:

    Can you ever really account for the external pressures on women to do everything at home (or make sure it gets done) while competing in fields who’s leaders often remain primarily men?

     The authors say this on page 2:

    Arlie Hochschild’s and Anne Machung’s The Second Shift (1989)  argued that women’s movement into the paid labor force was not accompanied by a shift away from household production, and they were, thus, now working a “second shift.”

    However, time use surveys do not bear this out. Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst (2007 ) document relatively equal declines in total work hours since 1965 for men and women, with the increase in hours of market work by women offset by large declines in their nonmarket work. Similarly, men are now working fewer hours in the market and more hours in home production.

    Blau (1998) points to the increased time spent by married men on housework, and the decreased total hours worked (in the market and in the home) by married women relative to married men, as evidence of women’s improved bargaining position in the home. However, it should be noted that the argument went beyond counting hours in The Second Shift. Women, they argued, have maintained the emotional responsibility for home and family; a point that is, perhaps, best exemplified by the familiar refrains of a man “helping” around the house or being a good dad when “babysitting” the kids.

    Thus, even if men are putting in more hours, it is difficult to know just how much of the overall burden of home production has shifted, as measuring the emotional, as well as physical, work of making a home is a much more difficult task.

    A recent paper by Alan B. Krueger (2007 ) sheds some light on this issue by examining the degree of pleasantness and unpleasantness in daily activities. Assuming that one’s enjoyment of particular activities has not changed over time, he finds that women’s new mix of daily activities leaves them hedonically unchanged. However, men have had a net increase in the pleasantness of activities in their day. Thus, according to Krueger’s estimates, between 1966 and 2005, relative to men, women became hedonically worse off.

    October 10, 2009
  15. Bruce W. Morlan said:

    Well, if there is now more equality than in the 50’s are we surprised that women are less happy? After all, the joke goes “Why do men die younger than women? Answer: because they can.” It may just be that having two jobs (home and paid) has always been a bad deal. But our inflated expectation of what it takes to survive (do we still have more TVs than toilets) may be to blame.

    October 10, 2009
  16. john george said:

    Bruce- Very well said, indeed!

    October 10, 2009
  17. […] we were discussing the politics of household chores, triggered by last week’s blog post on Deciphering the paradox of declining female happiness. This toilet-related Argyle Sweater cartoon by Scott Hilburn featured prominently in our […]

    October 12, 2009
  18. Griff, I think the speculation regarding the limitations of the analysis regarding “emotional responsibility” is right on the nose. In most (not all) households, women remain responsible for making sure things get done. However…

    I also remain skeptical of this analysis. What are underlying differences in the country during this time? Are people in general happier/unhappier? The analysis accounts for this using a linear adjustment for differences in mean happiness over time (by gender), but no curvature is included in the function. Do you believe that happiness increased or decreased in a straight-line fashion (by gender) over that period? Cuz I don’t. In looking at the actual proportions for each year, the results are all over the map, showing more similarity between the genders than over time. This strongly suggests that the results are too noisy to clearly distinguish differences by gender. The probit estimates are even more messy. My take on this is that even though one can fit a straight line to this data, the data do not lend themselves to a straight line analysis.

    Another concern is that while accounting for a variety of demographic and socioeconomic factors, the authors don’t adjust for education level (unless I missed it). There have been enormous changes in education level during this time, especially for women, so even if one believes that they found a “real” difference in happiness, that might simply be due to confounding by educational level. In essence, that would mean that the changes over time amount to comparing apples and oranges. Thinking about that further, women are certainly more highly educated and face a vast variety of choices that come with education. Also, education may greatly delay child-bearing (maternal age at first child is another factor not included in the analysis) which may lead to its own issues, as the huge increase in fertility treatment during the study period shows. Similarly, age at first marriage and number of marriages are not discussed. The divorce rate in the US has risen dramatically, which would clearly affect happiness (though it’s not always clear in which direction) for both genders.

    Which is all to say I think that there are big holes in the statistical side of the analysis, and that even if the results were true I see many alternate explanations other than taking the results at face value.

    October 15, 2009
  19. Griff Wigley said:

    Today’s WSJ: Housework Pays Off Between the Sheets.

    Housework may seem like the ultimate romance-killer. But guess what? A new study shows that for husbands and wives alike, the more housework you do, the more often you are likely to have sex with your spouse.


    The study defined housework as nine chores: cleaning, preparing meals, washing dishes, washing and ironing clothes, driving family members around, shopping, yard work, maintaining cars and paying bills.

    Wives in the study spent an average 41.8 hours a week on these tasks, compared with 23.4 hours for husbands—a split that is fairly typical, and often regarded by wives as unfair. However, the effects of any fairness concerns among wives weren’t measured in this study.

    Outside the home, husbands spent an average 33.8 hours a week on paid work, compared with 19.7 hours for wives. Couples reported having sex 82.7 times a year on average, or 1.6 times a week, about the same as in other studies.

    October 21, 2009
  20. Bright Spencer said:

    When home work or paid work is able to be accomplished, great satisfaction may be obtained from it. It is when work is blocked that people feel unhappy or frustrated. There is nothing better than a clean kitchen floor or a major deal coming to a fruitful ending.

    But when regulations, illness, or someone’s bad attitude stop the progress, unhappiness prevails. This is true in any era, any decade.

    I could never understand how to measure a feeling across the decades. As soon as the ‘ruler’ comes out, the pervasiveness of any feeling turns into a boxed kit for sale.

    I suppose it’s fun to try though.

    October 21, 2009

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