Expert Commentary

The paradox of declining female happiness

2009 study in American Economic Journal exploring why American women’s happiness has decreased relative to men's from 1972 to 2006.

Unhappy woman (iStock)

Various studies have shown that, by many absolute measures, life has greatly improved for American women; these include increased college attendance and smaller wage gaps. However, these absolute gains may or may not mean an overall improvement in women’s happiness and personal sense of well-being. The media debate over these issues was crystallized with the publication of the 2012 article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic.

A 2009 study from researchers at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania looked at what they determined to be “measures of subjective well-being” for women.  The study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” published in the American Economic Journal, analyzed data from 35 years of the U.S. General Social Survey.

The study’s findings included:

  • Women’s happiness decreased relative to men’s over the period 1972 to 2006: “Women begin the sample 4 percentage points more likely than men to report that they are very happy, and end the sample 1 percentage point less likely, with the proportion of women reporting they are very happy falling 0.15 percentage points a year, relative to men.”
  • Women became more likely to report being unhappy: “Women were 1 percentage point less likely than men to say that they were not too happy at the beginning of the sample. By 2006, women were 1 percentage point more likely to report being in this category.”
  • The decline in women’s happiness could be comparable to the negative effects of a decline in the U.S. economy: “The relative decline in women’s well-being over the past 35 years is equivalent to a fall in GDP of 0.32 log points.”
  • The decline was also discernible among younger females: Over the same period of time, there was “a large decline in girls’ happiness relative to that of boys — a difference that is somewhat larger than that seen among U.S. adults.”
  • After controlling for other various indicators, “the decline in happiness cannot be explained by the peaking optimism of those participating in the women’s movement in the 1970s.”
  • Though there have been “compositional shifts in employment for women,” the data show “neither trend nor level differences in happiness by employment for women throughout the 35-year period.”
  • Increased enrollment of women in higher education also does not explain the decline in happiness: “Women of all education groups have become less happy over time with declines in happiness having been steepest among those with some college.”
  • Another apparent trend relates to women’s attitudes toward their romantic lives: “On average, women are less happy with their marriage than men and women have become less happy with their marriage over time.”

Researchers conclude that these patterns of declining happiness may be an indication of changing realities for women; they note that “life satisfaction may have previously meant ‘satisfaction at home’ and has increasingly come to mean some combination of ‘satisfaction at home’ and ‘satisfaction at work.’ This averaging over many domains may lead to falling average satisfaction if it is difficult to achieve the same degree of satisfaction in multiple domains.”

Tags: women and work

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