Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

The NY Times has a useful, if sometimes inaccurate, article on an apparent disparity between men and women’s happiness; from the early seventies, men are getting happier and women are getting unhappier.  Or so their  reports of the happiness seem to indicate.

The Times seems to think that the root cause is that women have a much longer to-do list,while men are working less and relaxing more.   As contributions to the negative effects on women, it cites the pressure to be “a hottie” in addition to everything else, the fact that men aren’t their share of home work, and the failure of government to develop appropriate supportive programs.

One thing that makes the article useful is that it contains links to the original research reports (pdf files) here and here, which tell us that the results apply to Eurporean countries also.  And that African Americans are an exception; both men and women’s reports of happiness have gone up.  The Times’ hypothesis that government policies are playing a role would have, then, to be evaluated on a more global scale. 

The researchers are also better at pointing out that the basic data comes from reports of happiness.  What we do know is that women reported themselves as happier in the early seventies than they do now.  As one of the researchers points out, that could be due to self-deception in the past. 

Another problem is one shared with other work in the area called “happiness studies.”  Though researchers distinguish between momentary pleasure and longer term feelings, the conception of happiness employed seems to be tied to feeling.  In a discussion several years ago, Daniel Gilbert, a prominent happiness theorist, maintained the focus on feeling was needed because psychologists wanted a quantitative notion.  But, as Philippa Foot and the cadre of virtue theorists following in her footsteps have pointed out to class after class, feeling good about things is not enough to secure the important goal of a good life, and it may even be incompatible.  Thus someone easily deceived may remain ignorant of a partner’s betrayals and so may still feel good, but nonetheles fail to have the love and respect one would hope a good life contains.  Relatedly, one might think that the rewards of extended education  and a career, for example, do not consist in feeling better than those who didn’t have the opportunity for either.

Hence, one might reject the suggestion that the data show the women’s movement has been bad for women.  But that does not mean we should disregard the data.  At the very least, we should seek to understand why men are reporting happiness that women are not.  Is it the greater pressures on women?    If the data were just for the United States, one might suppose there could be factors that weigh more heavily one women than on men, such as health care for children.  Perhaps there are other social factors more generally present in Western countries that affect women more negatively, as the perhaps illusory values of a consumer society spread.  For example, one of the studies points out that women spend less time on friends and social groups than we used to.  Friends and social networks have often been cited in happiness studies as important factors in one’s reports of happiness.

When I last checked there nearly 700 comments on the NY Times article.   You can probably guess what they say.

Many thanks to Calypso for sending us the NYT article!