Gender influence on Happiness?

September 26, 2007

This is from Marginal Revolution.  It begins with a very scholarly observation on happiness and gender, and ends with a very personal solution.  My personal commentary follows.


Happiness advice from my wife

Alex Tabarrok

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.

This problem may explain a surprising finding from Betsey Stevenson and one of your leading candidates for "most wanted economist blogger," Justin Wolfers.  Stevenson and Wolfers have a new paper showing that happiness is up for men but down for women.   They write:

By most 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 male happiness. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found examining multiple countries, datasets, and measures of subjective wellbeing, and is pervasive across demographic groups. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective wellbeing than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

One reason is suggested by Stevenson in a NYTimes article on her research with Wolfers and similar independent research from Alan Krueger. 

Ms. Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother’s goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. “I sort of want all those things, too,” the student said, as Ms. Stevenson recalled, “but I also want to have a great career and have an impact on the broader world.”

Opportunity brings opportunity cost.

In the NYTimes article David Leonhardt correctly notes that "Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn’t fully come to grips with the change."  Alas, all he has to offer as solution is the usual platitudes about subsidized daycare and how men should do more of the housework – peculiar solutions to women’s unhappiness with increased opportunities.  Leonhardt should instead have talked to my wife.

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. 


Aura’s commentary:  Deal with work while at work and home while at home.  Guilt dilutes your focus and is unproductive. 

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