The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

June 19th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

One of my core principles when discussing gender issues is that we need to trust facts and research more than we trust ideology. In my experience, it is also quite common for facts and research to fly in the face of commonly accepted ideological “truths” that have been repeated to the point that many people regard them as facts.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a very interesting research report about the subjective happiness of men and women. If you want to you can read the whole paper, but the most important findings are summarized in the abstract:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

These results are very interesting. What the research shows is that as women have entered the workforce, their subjective happiness has declined. Contrary to what is politically correct, women were happier when they were housewives than they are nowadays. How can we explain these results?

  1. Working outside the home is not as glamorous as feminism would have us believe. Many jobs are exhausting without offering a large monetary reward.
  2. Women are torn between society’s expectations to work fulltime throughout life, and their own desire to work part-time when the children are small.
  3. Young women are taught that they can have it all: a successful career, a loving relationship, beautiful children and interesting vacations. In reality, life is much more messy and you often need to sacrifice what is important to you in order to achieve something that is even more important to you. Impossible standards lead to unhappiness.

The researchers themselves also have an interesting theory:

First, there may be other important socio-economic forces that have made women worse off. A number of important macro trends have been documented—decreased social cohesion (Putnam, 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge, 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker, 2006). While each of these trends have impacted both men and women, it is possible for even apparently gender-neutral trends to have gender-biased impacts if men and women respond differently to these forces. For example, if women are more risk averse than men, then an increase in risk may lower women’s utility relative to that of men.

In effect, what they are saying is that women and men have expected to have certain roles for thousands of years, and our biological and cultural makeup have adapted to those roles. Sudden changes to those roles may cause a stressful reaction in either sex, and according to this research women’s liberation has actually been more stressful to women than to men.

This is not to say that we should go back in time and re-create stereotypical gender roles that offer little freedom to either sex. We need to defend the fact that men and women are free to choose their lifestyles, while remaining aware that making new choices may come at a price.

We also need to remember that equality need not mean sameness, and having men and women play identical roles in society is not the only way to be equal.

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20 Responses to “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”

  1. Bj0rnborg Says:

    I think the politically motivated and driven female victim ideology is part to blame. It teaches women not only that they are constant victims, but also that they are powerless to change their situation.

    Anyone who understands the power of affirmation, understands that this is a very powerful and allencompassing negative affirmation.

    (As a sidenote it also teaches men that they are to be blamed for everything, but this affirmation is not as strong as it is secondary to the main goal: spreading female victim mentality to increase the political power of feminism).

    I guess this is included under increased anxiety and neuroticism.

  2. unomi Says:

    So, despite experiencing guilt and shame after growing up with feminism, having fewer close friends than women and facing institutional misandry in the media, men are happier than women?!

    (Also, behavioural scientists have been arguing for centuries over how to measure happiness. Not sure if what these two “assistant professors of business and public policy” have found is necessarily the truth, or even close to it.)

  3. Lavazza Says:


    Measuring subjective wellbeing (SWB) has become more and more standardized. I suppose the methods of this study is in line with other studies.

  4. Lavazza Says:

    I think that women for some reason are brought up to expect more from life than men. It is also more accepted for women to express their dissatisfaction. A dissatisfied man is labeled “bitter”. Another explanation is that there are more men than women who die early. It might be that these men are the least happy, whereas unhappy women go on living. At last there might be the influence of media and marketing which is made to make people to feel unsatisfied to make it possible to sell products that are supposed to make you happy and that women are more prone to take in this message.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Personally, I think if the data is accurate (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t), I think the primary factor is socio-economic competition. The real value of wages has dropped dramatically in the last few decades, which I think is a driving factor of more women entering the workforce. Also, the nature of most forms of employment have changed considerably, as it has become more mechanised, computerised and alienating. Communal and family life has deteriorated, with social and cultural forces atomising individual relations. Historically, women have been tied to roles around the family and their community. Now that even these support structures are failing, it makes the movement into forms of alienating labour all the more difficult to bear. The high aspirations of Feminism and of whole generations of women have not been reconciled with the stark reality.

    Also, I think there is so much confusion propagated by the media (and culture in general) around human relationships and what our ideals are, I think both men and women are left wanting. I think the misandry in the media cuts down the men that women want. Just as many men are becoming feminised, many women are becoming more masculinised. Men are getting expensive haircuts and are starting to wear more make-up, and women are wearing suits to work in pressurised environments and are expected to compete and be independent.

    Perhaps the ‘higher’ subjective well-being felt by men is still pretty damn low. Plus, as you say Lavazza, men don’t want to come across ‘bitter’… its not ‘manly’.

    But, I think if these trends continue, there will be more men like me whinging because it will be seen as more acceptable ;)

  6. Jim Says:

    “So, despite experiencing guilt and shame after growing up with feminism, having fewer close friends than women and facing institutional misandry in the media, men are happier than women?!”

    You caught that too. I think maybe what the data show is not that men are happier than women, but that women are unhappier than men.

    This is what I mean. Women have been exposed, at least in the US – UK too? – to a steady stream of indoctrination in all forms of popular media that “they can have it all”. (Oh, and it hasn’t been the hated Patriarchy that has been spreading this one around.) This was supposed to be empowering, but that kind of message also raises very burdensome expectations. You don’t have it all? Either you’re a slacker or you’ve been wronged. That’ll make anyone miserable. Women have always gotten beaten up over the way they raise their kids; now they get judged over their career success or lack of it – in both cases mostly by other women.

    Of course that is basically like the message men get – it’s a man’s world, go out there and make a life for yourself, no snivelling if you fail. Succeed, at everything that matters – but since that doesn’t include your kids, you’re off that hook. Whew! (Isn’t that nice – your get sliced out of the most important aspect of your life.)

    No snivelling if you fail – well there’s the difference. In the message men receive, you’d best not admit to being unhappy. Then again, maybe men have lower expectations and are willing to call their lives happy when a woman wouldn’t. Good for the women, they’re right on this one.

  7. Jim Says:

    “Men are getting expensive haircuts and are starting to wear more make-up,”

    OK, Andrew, what’s so feminine about that? Good grooming is not some off-limits area only women get access to. Well, the make-up is probably a pain in the ass…….

    And what’s wrong with women wearing sensible clothes? I know a lot of women that feel very comfortable in ACUs and field gear. Nobody thinks there’s anything unfeminine about them.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Jim, I think you’re right, I think men do have lower expectations. Probably because men are traditionally used to engaging with the public sphere, whether that be going to war or work, and most of the time its been pretty tough.

    Looking after one’s appearance is not necessarily only the province of women, but the new pruning and grooming that some men are now being encouraged to engage in, such as wearing make-up, has primarily been a feminine pursuit. I think it’s a good thing that men are becoming more engaged with this, but I think it generates different kinds of pressures that men are simply not accustomed to. In terms of self-esteem, worrying if you’re ‘up to the job’ and meeting challenges is very different from realising and coping with the fact that you’re windswept, your make-up is running and everyone in the office is looking at you (I’m not talking from personal experience!). It’s an entirely different ball game men are, by and large, unfamiliar with.

    I think its the same with women, although they’ve had a good few decades to adjust a little. I think it’s great that women are entering different forms of work that were traditionally for men. I think both of these movements are good for gender liberation. I’m just saying that they both yield very different kinds of pressures that both sexes are not yet accustomed to.

  9. Bo Says:

    Science as well as statistics should always be viewed in a cautious and critical manner. This certainly applies to research in the social sciences, where controlled experiments are much harder to do and thus interpretation becomes critical. Thus, even more than in natural sciences, a multi layered critical thinking might be needed. It is also always good to remember Ockham and his razor, i.e. always try to find the “simplest” solution and explains what is going on, instead of trying to interpret the results according to what one wishes to see.

    So the first question regarding the referenced study is how valid it is outside of the USA? There are many socio-economic factors where the US is *very* different from e.g. norther Europe. Among these are the lack of general public health care, extended vacation time and maternity leave in the US. When I did my post doc in the US 1991-92, my daughter was newly born and my then wife was able to travel with me during her maternal leave. (For the sake of information, I had been on paternal leave with my son previously).

    At the lab I worked, there were a few highly qualified female PI (principal investigators). These women had chosen not to have children, since the lack of legal right to be on maternal leave would have had them essentially kicked out of the research funding system. When I told them that my wife was on a full year paid leave, they almost cried. I do not think that they were happy with this system, but their lack of happiness was due to external in contrast to personal factors. Had the system allowed for other choices, it would have been possible to do the kind of personal choices Pelle advocates but in this situation, their freedom of choice was to a large degree restricted.

    If we are to achieve a situation with gender equality in contrast to uniformity, the political and social system must level the playing field and allow people to do informed and individual choices. Levelling the playing field calls for research and investigations that can help us understand e.g. why boys and young men perform worse than girls and women in schools and at universities but still comes out on top when it comes to salaries. What is rewarded at different levels and how do we find equality that goes
    both ways?

  10. Pelle Billing Says:

    Excellent comment Bo.

  11. Jane McGillivray Says:

    Bo, I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s, the Outliers….which is really about the same thing, how at different levels of play, certain people are nurtured while others are not….. And I think this is relevant to the gender discussion. It is an interesting, quick read…..

  12. Bo Says:

    Jane, it sounds interesting, I will try to make it a summer read. Next few days though I will be busy attending a meeting discussing equality on a grander scale. The Tallberg Forum ( addresses the question “How on earth can we live together”. I think that there is a link here also to the gender question

  13. Jim Says:

    Andrew, you are really right – you were talking abut something excessive. I draw the line at “manscaping”. I don’t approve of men who get all icked out over leg hair and underarm hair on women either – if that kind of thing bothers you so much, just leave the white women alone. For that matter i don’t have much use for people who get “race-reassignment surgery” – getting your eyes made round or whatever. It’s all pathetic.

    Your remark that wonen have a few decads of adapting makes snese to me. I remember books for women in the 80′s giving hints at how to fit in in the coprorate world. Tip 1: Never cry in front of anyone. You can’t break down in tears and then turn around and expect to be taken seriously as an adult. This is not a gender thing, or even culturally determined – it’s just common sense that self-control is the root of all power, and when you are in charge, you have to be able to at least like you a ein control, if only for the sake of your subordinates. Second tip: cover your arms. Men woear bare-shoulder shirts and suits because visibility is a ofrm of vulnerabiliyo, or at least submisson ot someone else’s gaze – same goes for you, toots. Thus the craze for fotball shoulders in the mid-80′s.

  14. Who Has It Worse? Says:

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  15. Victoria Says:

    In what is an otherwise excellent gloss of the article, you omit one possible explanation for the results: that women are simply more comfortable expressing dissatisfaction nowadays than when the original data set was collected.

    In other words, it’s not that women were happier in the 70s, but rather, that they were less comfortable expressing their dissatisfaction. Lavazza remarks that today it is less socially acceptable for men to complain, and I probably agree. But let’s look at women in the 1970s, embroiled as they still were in restrictive norms of what constituted happiness in the good ol’ days, i.e. when the nuclear family unit was championed in the 50s. I am somewhat skeptical that many of these women had the idealogical latitude to parse their subjective well-being the way that women today can. Even in the throws of sexual revolution, I doubt society was at a point where it could nuture such subversive introspective for the majority of the female population. This kink doesn’t overrule other explanations, but deserves to be taken into account, anyway.

    We also have to be aware that, although the data collection seems to indicate that female dissatisfaction spans all demographic groups, most of our deliberation has centered on the middle to upper class. So, while we have some plausible explanations regarding shoulder pads and the entrance into more alienating forms of labor, we are forgetting that some women (many, actually) entered the work force a long time before the sexual revolution reared its bra-burning head. And many of these women were performing some of the most dehumanizing labor there is out there. A good debate on this topic would ask what the sexual revolution did for these women, and how their relative happiness changed as a result.

    Thanks to all for the food for thought.

  16. Pelle Billing Says:


    Good point about the ability to express dissatisfaction. That is certainly one variable to consider.

    I also agree that the sexual revolution is an important variable. I doubt that it has made women happier. That doesn’t mean that I want us to go back in time, but increased freedom can paradoxically make us more unhappy until we learn how to handle that freedom. And I think that many women are much happier in stable relationships than when acting out a free sexuality.

  17. Chris Marshall Says:

    In what is an otherwise excellent gloss of the article, you omit one possible explanation for the results: that women are simply more comfortable expressing dissatisfaction nowadays than when the original data set was collected.

    That’s a very interesting idea, Victoria.

    I also appreciated the wit and style of the rest of your posting.

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  20. monty Says:

    Surprise. Women come out as victims once again. How convenient. Proving once again that victimhood is the greatest manipulative power n the world.