I had been meaning to post about the fascinating new paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers from the Wharton School: The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness (PDF). American men are now more satisfied with their lives than women - a reversal of the situation in the mid-1970s. There is a similar, though less sizeable, pattern in Europe.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution blog also noticed the paper. His explanation?
My wife, a PhD microbiologist, told me once that when she was at work she felt guilty about not being at home with the kids and when she was at home with the kids she felt guilty about not being at work.
...Opportunity brings opportunity cost.
...As I wrote this post, I asked my wife about her feeling guilty at home and at work but she told me she no longer feels this way. "Really?" I asked, "Why not?"
"I decided to act more like a man and get over it," she responded.
Tabarrok also cites a recent New York Times article by David Leonhardt, He’s Happier, She’s Less So. Leonhardt's explanation is not dissimilar:
What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.
'Happiness' (life satisfaction) is dynamic not static, and expectations can matter greatly.
Mark Liberman at Language Log makes an important point about the Stevenson and Wolfers paper. To the naked eye, Figure 1 in the paper (the US happiness time series from 1972-2006) shows very little difference by gender. As Liberman points out, it is only after responses have been adjusted via an ordered probit that a statistically significant difference (though not a huge one) is detected. In a follow-up post, Gender-role resentment and Rorschach-blot news reports, he goes further:
OK, everybody, take a deep breath and listen: THERE IS NO HAPPINESS GAP!
Every year since 1972, the General Social Survey has been asking a big demographically-balanced sample of American men and women "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Are you a) very happy, b) pretty happy, c) not too happy."
Neither in 1972 nor in 2006 was there any statistically significant difference between men and women in the distribution of their responses! And in both 1972 and 2006, the proportion of women who said "very happy" was a little bit higher than the proportion of men who gave that response (though again, in neither year was the difference distinguishable from chance fluctuations).
So what is everyone talking about? Well, some economists fit a complicated statistical model (called an "ordered probit") to the whole sequence of survey results from 1972 to 2006, and this analysis suggests that women have become a little tiny bit less happy relative to men over that whole time period. But the effect is so small that you can't actually see it in the statistical analysis for any one year; the effect is much smaller than the amount of year-to-year jiggle. That's true even through the General Social Survey involves a huge sample, much bigger than is normally used for opinion polls: 4,500 people in 2006.
Hat tip: Steven Levitt at the Freakonomics blog