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Women are less happy

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.

10 Comments

  1. ZBicyclist says:

    I don't know that one would expect people to be especially happy during a transition time — e.g. a transition involving changes and a lack of clarity of what a "woman's role" is, or whether that term is even meaningful.

    One might speculate about the happiness of freed slaves in the decades after the Civil War, although there probably isn't any quantitative data.

    More recent examples of large societal transformations might involve eastern Europe, China, etc. which might have data.

  2. Tom Moertel says:

    Regarding:

    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).

    That's a fascinating find. Can you share a link or two to the studies you think make the best argument for that finding? (Andrew Oswald's "Human Well-being and Causality in Social Epidemiology" and Nattavudh Powdthavee's "Causal Analysis in Happiness Research", both fairly recent, gave me the impression that much of the existing happiness research wasn't suitable for making claims about cause and effect. Given your apparent interest in happiness research – you post about it often – I'd appreciate any insights you could share about the best of the current literature.)

    Cheers,
    Tom

  3. Andrew Gelman says:

    Z: Interesting thoughts. Maybe Mankiw had more on his mind here than I was giving him credit for.

    Tom: I have no knowledge of empirical findings on the "aiming for happiness" issue. When I wrote that people have written about this, I'm talking about philosophers, self-help gurus, etc. Just the conventional wisdom (which I have no reason to doubt) that it's hard to aim for happiness directly. There might be research on it; I've basically read no research on happiness besides what I've linked to on the blog.

  4. john says:

    Happy is a relative word that has a lot of variables and comes in all shapes and sizes in all walks of life!

  5. Matt Stevens says:

    Do they rule out response bias? I'd suspect the women's movement would make women more comfortable expressing their unhappiness and this could account for the change.

  6. anon says:

    There is considerable irony in Mankiw taking a shot at the women's movement and then reversing authorship order to put the male co-author's name first.

    Yeah, it's a little thing, just an error, blah blah. But in my decade plus of being in academia, I have yet to see a *female* co-author erroneously elevated to first-author status, although I've seen the reverse switch more often than I can count. (Another error of the same ilk is when the female co-author — or even first-author — mysteriously disappears, and the paper is attributed solely to the male co-author. I've also been at a conference in which a presenter repeatedly attributed a solo-authored paper to the female author's male advisor.)

    Maybe that's why women are less happy — they're playing on the same fields as men now, but not getting full credit for their accomplishments.

  7. Mike Rulle says:

    My initial reaction to studies like this is they are wrong. I guess my "prior" is that the potential for error and bias is so strong in these kinds of studies, it is difficult for me to take this at face value.

  8. jonathan says:

    I know this comment is late but you missed that the authors live together so you have dual irony – and maybe a joke by Mankiw – that it remains common polite practice to list the woman's name first on invitations, etc. to a couple.

    BTW, my reading of causation is a shrug. Maybe it's the shoes. Maybe it's the dual trends in industrialized society where women work, where they have business careers, where they are colleagues and bosses, but also where cultural portraits of women are increasingly sexualized – sexualized clothing even for young girls – and women are increasingly caricatured using derisive slang such as "ho's."

    Maybe it's an artifact of male reaction to women's liberation, marked not only by entire social trends that reduce women to manipulative gold diggers and sex toys but by the other end of the spectrum, which insists on a woman's traditional "modesty." Would you feel good if men reacted to your increased freedom to work and live by calling you a ho? Is it the women or is it the reaction by men to women? To push this further, societies are still male-dominated and we have a dynamic which accepts and encourages female achievement but which also denigrates and disrespects. Phrased this way, it reminds me of traditional racism issues.

  9. William Ockham says:

    I think this commentary over at the Language Log is especially valuable:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1456

    In short, this looks like much ado over very, very little.

  10. Brett says:

    In response to: Regarding:

    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).

    After 16 years of marriage it finally began to work when my wife and I stopped trying to make each other happy and focused on being happy doing things together. It may sound kind of corny but it has me looking forward to 16 more years…and more