The Gender Gap in Happiness

“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 had declined both absolutely and relative to men. . . These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging – one with higher subjective well-being for men.”

This comes from The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, a May, 2009, paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, are both at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. This prestigious institution, known for serious work, now comes up with something as ephemeral as a “gender gap in happiness.”

The study would seem to indicate the extent to which feminism, women’s studies and such, have colonized even the best business schools. Another example would be the UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders, an exercise in head-counting masquerading as scholarship, as we noted in a previous Contrarian. In the politically correct world of the academy, it should come as no surprise that 35 years of measureable improvements leave women with a deficit in happiness. Yet there is at least one good reason to take The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness seriously.

It acknowledges the improvements in women’s lives, which militants still take pains to deny with their rhetoric about the “wage gap” and so on. With this crowd, it’s always 1958. Women are supposed to be angry at all times, and angry people, by definition, are not happy people. Many observers, in fact, were not happy with the Paradox paper. As some commentators suggested, it could also be the case that the feminist movement sold women a bill of goods.

The Wharton School authors wonder if the women’s movement raised expectations faster than society was able to meet them, and that this could lead to disappointment. The authors discount that the prevailing unhappiness has its root in issues of marriage, divorce, single parenthood, or the balance between work and family. Yet some interpret the Paradox study as a charge that working mothers bring unhappiness on themselves.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times speculated that “the cowboy capitalism of the Reagan era,” troubled women who would have been happier under more egalitarian arrangements. In this view, free enterprise and prosperity are apparently at odds with happiness. Mr. Douthat also wrote that the achievements of the feminist era “may” have delivered women to greater unhappiness.

Commentator Meghan Daum was more certain. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, she blamed, yes, actress Angelina Jolie. “Her entire Oscar-winning, serial-adopting, Brad Pitt-snagging, plane-piloting, unattainably hot-looking existence,” Daum wrote, “makes women around the world feel hopelessly inadequate and therefore unhappy.”

There may be more to that theory than many imagine. Meghan Daum also showed good sense by noting that happiness “is ultimately an abstraction (not to mention in the eye of the beholder) and may simply defy quantitative measurement.” That should be obvious, but Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School gave it a try. Let readers judge for themselves, but I have some thoughts on the matter.

In America, there is no constitutional right to happiness for anyone, male or female. There is only a right to the pursuit of happiness, and capturing it is a rather tricky matter. Blaise Pascal, inventor of la machine arithmetique, forerunner of the computer, also observed that, in always seeking to be happy, we guarantee that nous le soyons jamais.

With no apology to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there can be no standard experience in happiness. I don’t know Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but they appear to have found some degree of happiness in helping others less fortunate than themselves. Apparently there is more to it than good looks, fame, and lots of money. We can, however, say one thing for certain.

Happiness is not likely to be the product of a militant movement in perpetual grievance mode, impervious to facts, and dedicated to the notion that the freest, most prosperous society in the world is really a factory of oppression that leaves men with “higher subjective well-being.”

So the feminist Long March continues, with no end in sight. Will we now see a call for federal legislation, say Title XXXIX, to correct the gender gap in happiness? Now that would not surprise me.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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