Wed. March 13
The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness
The title of this article is also the title of a 2009 study by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The study looked at data from the United States and Europe, focusing on the period from the 1970s to the mid-2000s: a time of medical advances, the second wave of feminism, the rise of no-fault divorce and the personal computer. And also a period in which women got less happy—both absolutely, and relative to men.
The authors consider several possible explanations for this decline, including the “second shift” effect (in which women come home from their jobs and still have to do the lioness’s share of the domestic work) and the rise in divorce and single parenting. But in the end they suggest that the “paradox” remains unexplained.
Some critics say it’s no big deal. The data isn’t as clear as the catchy title might suggest: Cross-cultural comparisons are inherently difficult, especially on a subject as culture-bound as definitions of personal happiness. Even looking just at data for the United States, different datasets offer sharply different pictures. All of them show both an absolute and relative decline in women’s happiness, but the size of that decline—and the trendline for men—varies quite a bit depending on which survey you look at. In one survey both men and women got much less happy; in others, men got slightly unhappier or slightly happier while women got slightly less happy.
Barbara Ehrenreich makes a related criticism: The shifts in self-reported happiness aren’t necessarily that huge. I think this criticism is misplaced. If the study were called, “The Paradox of Stagnant Female Happiness,” it would still contradict conventional wisdom. Things failed to get better, at least on the happiness front. Birth control, battered women’s shelters, antidepressants, women bishops, smart phones . . . all this just to end up where we started? What is this, a fairy tale? “I wish I’d never made any wishes!”
A better criticism is that self-reported happiness doesn’t necessarily measure well-being or even positive feelings. If your culture places a high value on women’s docility (or on acceptance of one’s lot), women may be more likely to smile for the pollsters regardless of their true feelings.
And the data may reflect a “revolution of rising expectations.” If women in 1972 were thinking, “Things could be worse,” they may have reported themselves as happy; women in an improved condition in 2006 might think, “Things could be even better.” Having seen their situation improve, they’re all the more aware of what remains to be addressed.
Material progress brings its own challenges. Once you can work, employers and potential husbands may expect you to, and while work brings fulfillment for some women it brings stress for pretty much all of us.
But the best criticism of Stevenson and Wolfers’s study sharpens the implied critique of contemporary life rather than weakening it. This criticism is that there’s a difference between happiness and meaning. We’ve all seen the studies which find that parents report less happiness than non-parents, and yet very few of us actually consider this a “case against parenting.” We consider it a case against happiness research.
The good life includes suffering as well as contentment. And most of the important choices in our lives are choices for more stress, for pushing ourselves, refusing to be satisfied with whatever comes easiest.
So maybe women are sacrificing happiness for something more important. What is that “something”? The most obvious answer is choice. Women have more choice and control now. We have come much closer to autonomy rather than dependence—and increased autonomy is an obvious good in some cases, as when a woman’s dependence tied her to an abusive husband. But the point of choice can’t just be more choice. Freedom from and freedom to find their purpose in freedom for. The most important thing for which we can be freed is love: deep, sacrificial connection to another person.
In 1987 Allan Bloom asked Americans, “Are we lovers anymore?” Today we’re increasingly answering with, at best, “It’s complicated.” We marry much less and live alone much more. We report fewer close personal connections, fewer ties to communal institutions, and less religious faith.
Stevenson and Wolfers don’t call for some kind of impossible return to the past, and neither do I. But so much of our discourse about feminism and women is animated by paranoid fear of exactly this impossible return to the Bad Old Days. This fear keeps us from being honest about the emotional and spiritual costs of autonomy. It keeps us from asking more interesting questions, like, Where can people place their trust once they’ve been liberated from the bad old authorities? What is worth the price of unhappiness and what isn’t? When is it good to be dependent? By pointing out that whatever has happened with women doesn’t seem to have made us happier, “Paradox” clears the way for questions about things a lot more interesting than mere happiness.
This post is part of a series by Eve Tushnet about the postnuclear family. Our new family landscape may look chaotic, but the books in this series can help us understand what’s going on with sex, love, and marriage in America. Read her previous posts in the series: The Hard-Won Bliss That Is Marriage, The End of Premarital Sex, A World of Good Intentions, and The Postnuclear Family: Last Comes Marriage.