By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
After 40 years of fighting for equality, it seems that women are no happier. In fact, women in many countries have been growing steadily unhappier compared with men, according to a study published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania, have found that in America, women’s happiness has fallen “both absolutely and relatively to that of men.”
In the 1970s, women were saying they were significantly happier than men but this new study has found that, for the first time, women are reporting levels of happiness lower than men.
The authors readily admit that measuring happiness is necessarily a subjective task, but the overall trend from the data, compiled from social surveys conducted over many years, is clear and compelling.
The work builds on earlier research by Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, who has a particular interest in the study of happiness. He said: “What Betsey and Justin have done, which is a valuable addition, is to show that the trend is found rather widely. For most of the post-war era, happiness surveys showed women noticeably happier than men. That difference has now eroded to zero.”
The big question is: why?
Sociologists have tended to explain this dip in women’s happiness as the “second shift” phenomena. This is what happened when women went out to work but found their domestic duties were still there when they got home at night, creating twice as much daily work as before.
But Stevenson and Wolfers don’t agree. According to surveys about how individuals spend their time, total work hours for both men and women have actually declined since 1965.
Studies do show that money is an important factor in happiness: the well-off are happier than the very poor. However, that effect tails off once basic needs are met. The phenomenon is reflected in a recent study of 700 women and their attitudes to shopping and spending money.
“Years ago women didn’t have independent incomes, and now many of them are financially independent,” said Karen Pine, professor of developmental psychology at Hertfordshire University and author of Sheconomics in an interview with London’s TimesOnline.
“What I found was that 79 percent — an alarming statistic — told me they would go on a spending spree in order to cheer themselves up. Many women are using shopping and spending as a way of regulating emotions.”
Spending, however, doesn’t buy happiness. “Many of them described a buzz at the time, but it was short-lived,” said Pine. “Then they experienced buyer’s remorse and came down to earth with a bump.”
Stevenson and Wolfers point out that over the past two decades many men, as well as women, have experienced financial concerns. “The real wages (after inflation) of many men fell during much of this period,” they said. Yet it is women whose happiness has notably changed.
If money is not the key, what about families? Divorce rates and cohabitation have soared over the time in which women’s happiness has fallen. However, if they are important factors, say researchers, more unhappiness should be found among single mothers and the separated.
Stevenson and Wolfers concluded the relative decline in women’s happiness “is irrespective of the age, marital, labour market or fertility status of the group analysed.”
Though nobody has isolated a convincing reason for the decline in women’s happiness, there is a consensus of sorts. In his study, Oswald concluded: “The lead theory is that women’s lives have become more complicated in many dimensions, unlike men who have to balance a smaller number of balls.”
Pine agrees: “One can always point to increasing pressures on women. We are now trying to have careers and families and look good for longer,” she said. “It may be that in trying to have it all we are feeling that we may have set ourselves an impossible goal.”
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