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!

9 thoughts on “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

  1. You know, the idea that “the women’s movement has been bad for women” pisses me off. It works off of the idea that feminists fought for women’s right to work outside of the home, and since women who work and have a family are less happy, it must be feminism’s fault. As I see it, though, the link to unhappiness is that women are working full time and still expected to be the primary caretaker for their children and the primary housekeeper. That wasn’t feminism’s idea. Feminists wanted (and still want) to even the playing field. That didn’t mean shipping women off to work without taking anything else off of their plate. The idea was to create a more equitable distribution of social and economic duties across gender lines. The fact that our culture picked up the idea of women working and didn’t pick up the idea of men doing more parenting and housekeeping, though I think that it speaks to a failed battle for feminism at this point, is hardly feminist’s fault.

    And it pisses me off. Why? Not just because I’m a feminist and don’t like to be blamed. It’s because the implication is “see what happened the LAST time women demanded better and asked for things to change? They’re miserable. Better not do THAT again.” It promotes going back to the old system instead of continuing progress and actually acknowledging that the women’s movement is not yet over, that the patriarchal working structure is the problem and not the desire to have a job.

    . . . and that’s my little rant for the day.

  2. I absolutely agree, Cara. Good for you for saying it!

    Dan, thanks for the links; they’re very interesting and have a number of important points. I’m not sure the general characterization the way people interpret journalistic statistics is correct. He suggests we take an average difference and read it as a difference applying to each individual and so conclude that every individual woman is getting unhappier.

    The reason I doubt that is that we talk in exactly the same way, I think, about how the average American is getting heavier, dying before the age of 80, and so on, and we don’t think that everyone is getting heavier and/or that no one lives after 80. So I don’t think we think all women are less happy than women on average were in the 70’s.

  3. Your observation that “happiness” is difficult to gauge is much to the point. Still, I think it’s unfair to characterize the article as “somewhat inaccurate,” as though your objections were obviously correct or themselves uncontroversial.

  4. Interesting point, Herst, and I realize I wasn’t clear enough. Do note, though, that I said “if.”

    Still, one glaring inaccuracy consists in the NYT taking the results to be about the States, and so looking at causes that are true of the States but not all of Europe.

  5. My Doctor advised me of the results of a comprehensive study (regarding US stats).

    The individuals that report being happiest are in the following order, from most happy to least happy:

    1. Married men (most happy)
    2. Married women
    3. Single women
    4. Single men (least happy)

  6. The interesting thing is that, as a society, we can have measures around women in the workplace and offering equity. Homelife is a completely different animal. That is done on a home by home basis and there really isn’t anything as a society we can do to enforce equity in the home.

  7. I think men need to do more housework and parenting. That is the bottom line. Women cannot possibly do everything. Women are needed in the workforce. Studies have proven that companies with higher percentages of women in upper management actually have higher profits. Duetsche Telekom just recently made it mandatory that at least 30% of it’s upper management positions must be reserved for women in order to improve the company. Women are also filling more and more leadership roles. Iceland and Australia now have women leading their countries. And those women are appointing other women in top level government positions. So, it is obvious that the talents of women are needed outside of the home. This is not the 1920’s anymore where it was expected that women stayed home. It’s the 2000’s where the women are needed outside of the home in the workforce and in the leadership positions of the government. With that being the case, men should expect to be doing more of the child rearing and housework.

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