Are We Happy Yet?
Don't believe the hype about women's declining happiness
Posted Oct 06, 2009
Are not women of the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeper happier than the working-woman? It is not too clear what the word happy really means and still less what true values it may mask.
--Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
When I started researching women and happiness, more than a few positive psychologists warned me that I wouldn't to find any differences between men and women. But I figured, How would they know?
The more I'd read up on the science of happiness, the more sort of Twilight Zone it seemed--virtually everyone in this strange and happy land was a guy. Good and interesting guys for the most part, but all guys.
Positive psychology had ignored women's issues from the get-go. With the exception of a bunch of often-cited nuns, women were totally left out. Were our lives outside the convent too complex to consider? (When psychologists have studied depression, on the other hand, they've focused two to one on women).
In any case, I was pretty excited when I came across that 2006 "happy wives" study. Not all women are wives, of course, but at this point I wasn't going to be picky.
As I read the findings, my jaw dropped. I mean, dig: Adding insult to exclusion, the study by a couple of University of Virginia sociologists purported to show that married women with "traditional values" and breadwinning husbands were happier than married women with feminist values. Were these boys serious? I could hardly wrap my increasingly unhappy feminist mind around what I read. The key to lasting fulfillment was to embrace my inner hausfrau? Or, as one of the sociologists put it, to "make an effort to expect less"?
I'm all for stay-at-home moms and traditional values if that lifestyle and those values reflect our true choices, but for real? This was their one-size-fits-all conclusion?
The study, of course, turned out to be highly questionable. Based on data from polls conducted in the early 1990s, the findings were so atypical as to render the whole thing an "outlier." When sociologist Scott Coltrane of the University of California at Riverside used the same data set, he found no difference in happiness between homemakers and working women.
Then came the University of Pennsylvania study in which economists looked at traditional happiness data in which people were asked how happy they felt with their overall lives as well as specific aspects of life--like their marital status or marriage, their health, and their work. Thirty-five years ago, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, we'd switched places. And the biggest drop in subjective well-being was recorded among women my own age-those of us in our thirties and early forties.
In a second study, folks at Princeton looked at time-use data and found an even harsher reality: Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant--they now worked less and relaxed more. Women, on the other hand, replaced housework with paid work, but still do a larger share of child rearing, cooking, cleaning, and elder care. Adding alienation to all this work, we now spend less time with friends and more time watching television. (Lots of folks were quick to blame feminism for women's misery. But I'd like to see a study on how much it cheers us up to just kill our televisions).
I killed my television. And then I asked a hundred women this question: "Do you think you're happier or less happy than your mother was at your age?"
Asking a daughter to recall her mother's happiness is a far cry from asking both mothers and non-mothers how they feel about their lives, but the women's answers stood in stark contrast to the recent studies, and suggested some interesting questions about why researchers may have been able to trace that decline in happiness.
What is it that truly makes us happy? Are we reliable judges of our own happiness? Why might we say we were happy if we weren't?
Instead of carefree housewives, daughters described mothers who had lost themselves in child rearing, in marriages, in low-wage labor. The median age difference between the daughters I asked and their mothers was just under 30 years, but more than 75% of the daughters I asked judged themselves to be happier than their mothers. The other 25% were split evenly between those who believed their mothers were happier, and those who thought it was a toss up.
Do you think you're happier or less happy than your mother was at your age? Consider it. Your solitary answer might not point to any larger trends, but a little DIY psychological study never hurt any body.
Adapted from Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness