Is this it? On Female Happiness or the Lack Thereof.

Last week I came across a discussion in the blogosphere (for example, here, here, and here)  about a new study entitled “Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” which was written by Betsey A. Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both from the Wharton School of Business.  The abstract of this study says it all: “By most objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”  My initial reaction to this study was to fear that it would be paraded all over the conservative/right wing blogosphere to prove–once again–that feminism is bad for women.  The “gender traditionalists” would be doing a little victory dance.

But, once I got over that fear, I started really thinking about what it could mean that the more women’s economic and political status has improved, the more miserable they are.  One could throw out the obvious question: what do these researchers mean by happiness?  The data that Stevenson and Wolfers analyzed came from the General Social Survey and “[s]ubjective well-being is measured using the question: ‘Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?'”  So, for the purposes of this study–as I understand it–subjects were asked to report on their own subjective well-being–their own sense of whether or not they felt happy–without any elaboration of what happiness (for the purposes of this study) means.  This is interesting and it is a philosophical question.

What does it mean to be happy?  This is, I would argue, not something that we can measure objectively, nor that we can describe in terms of brain function or hormonal levels.  Happiness is–dare I say it–a culturally variable concept.  Might there be anything that is common in various cultural definitions of happiness?  Is happiness an emotional state? Is it a culturally conditioned response?  I am not sure that these questions can be easily answered.  And, if they cannot be answered easily, what does that say about the findings of the Wharton Professors’ study?

Maureen Dowd highlights one of the claims made by Stevenson: “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.”  I found this statement puzzling.  I can see that children are likely to cause you pain at times: tragedies can befall them, misbehavior on their part can irritate us, lack of sleep can make us grumpy, etc.  But, to single this out as a possible explanation for why women are more unhappy now that they have improved their lot in life makes little sense to me.  Dowd anticipates the retort: why aren’t men just as unhappy then, by claiming that the complicated hormonal nature of women makes them more vulnerable to what can go wrong with children and they are more likely to beat themselves up.

Dowd then moves on to note that women are more likely to take antidepressants due to this aspect of their nature: hormonally and biologically complicated. Hence, because women are more vulnerable to what can go wrong with children than men (and add on all of the other pressures from work), they require some sort of psychotropic vitamin to prop them up and get them functioning at the levels men are usually found to be.  How would we describe that typical emotional state: anhedonia?  Neither unhappy, nor happy, just chugging along–fairly immune to the possible threats to ones’ well-being?

What is perhaps not discussed much in this report is that while men may be happier than men (according to self reporting), they aren’t all that happy. They are OK.  So, women are less than OK .  Maybe what this means is that women are hormonally/biologically less likely to be OK in a crazy, fast-paced, little down time, sort of world.  So what?

One tack is to see the goal of feminism to not be met yet.  Was feminism merely about putting us at the table? What about changing the various institutions from the ground up in ways that might promote well-being, beyond achieving a better professional status, political office, or higher salaries.  Perhaps women moving into these structures–with little transformation of the core values of these structures–women said to themselves: is this it?

In any case, what is worth discussing here is the following: what makes us happy?  And, might happiness lie in something else than being socially rewarded in our current political-economic system?  Go see the Jill Sprecher’s (a former Philosophy Major) film 13 Conversations About One Thing, which alludes to Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness to get this conversation going.

4 Responses to “Is this it? On Female Happiness or the Lack Thereof.”

  1.   Steve Gimbel Says:

    So, men are unhappy living in this corporate culture in which you have little time for friends and family, live unhealthy lives with tenuous health care coverage, and have the general conditions of human flourishing made more and more difficult to obtain. O.k.

    Then you have women who have been thrown into this same rat race after being kept out, only to be tossed in with the added lingering expectations (care of the home, children, and husband) of the patriarchal system that had previously excluded them.

    And now we see that men are unhappy and women are even more unhappy. Must be either them hormones or children…

    Instead of taking seriously feminist criticisms of social, political, and economic institutions, we reduce feminism to the equality of access argument. Since access (caging off all other factors — don’t look at the magician’s other hand) has been largely granted, access and the feminism that gave rise to it must be what is responsible for the extra unhappiness.

    Man, seems like an air-tight argument to me…(sigh)

  2.   Jenny Says:

    Yea Steve. You said it much better than I could’ve. The closer I read the study, the more I was stunned by the authors’ inability to capture the whole picture here. Men are not happy either. Where is that in the reporting?

  3.   Matt Sims Says:

    I woud definitely agree that the core of this issue is the question you pose, “Perhaps women moving into these structures–with little transformation of the core values of these structures–women said to themselves: is this it?” and supported by the comments of Mr. Gimbel.

    I see this embodied in the problem of child-raising. NPR had an interesting discussion about how the rising of standards of living of Americans rose astronimically in the post-war booms, but going into the 1970’s to maintain these standards of living began to require more and more having two breadwinners in every family. Today, everyone is expected to work in order to buy, what we have all been conditioned to feel that we need. At the same time, maternity and paternity leave has not evolved to suit our new paradigm. What will be the consequences of future generations, where many parents’ would like to spend more time with their families, but feel that they simply can’t while maintaining their careers?

  4.   Matt Sims Says:

    To add one more comment to my last one, I would say this issue of the time we spend with our children really illuminates the fact that feminism’s attempts to change the core values of our society our goals that it would be in everyone’s interest to strive for, not just women. We all suffer the consequences when our family spends less time together. Furthermore, as you both argue, what core values have really changed when we critically investigate what both men and women are striving for; a bigger paycheck that doesn’t necessarily make for a better life together.

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