Greg Mankiw reports on an article by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that finds:
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. . . . 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. . . .
Mankiw concludes: “It sounds like either the women’s movement was a mistake or subjective happiness is not the right objective.” The bit about the women’s movement doesn’t make sense to me–this reasoning seems to contradict the point Mankiw made a few days ago about the difficulty of making inferences based on n=1.
If I had to make a quick guess, I would’ve gone with the hypothesis of economic stress combined with the difficulty of having a job and taking care of the kids, but Stevenson and Wolfers discuss this issue (see pages numbered 15 and 17 and Table 3 of the linked article) and show that the data don’t particularly support this hypothesis.
Getting back to Mankiw’s comment: Setting aside the line about the women’s movement–who knows, maybe the women’s movement was a mistake, it’s hard to say with n=1 what might have happened in its absence–I think he’s right that subjective happiness is not an “objective.” People have written about this: you don’t become happy by aiming for happiness as an objective, you become happy by doing things that make you happy (or, just by being the kind of person who’s happy in any case). It’s an interesting issue, but I’m not sure how this is relevant to the Stevenson and Wolfers study.
P.S. If I were Betsey Stevenson, I might be a little unhappy that Mankiw referred to the authors unalphabetically as Wolfers and Stevenson!
P.P.S. Mankiw has fixed this and put the authors in the correct order.