Happiness and well-being are not a main topic of my research (though I have a paper dealing with well-being) but are subjects I have been interested in. Sometimes scientists — at least economists — tend to forget the big picture. We are so focused on our small, specialized little topics that we forget or disregard why a certain subject matters for society and how it impacts the overall the well-being.
I thought I had done my reading and was familiar with most of the theories explaining what determines well-being and the different aspects of the problem. But recently I came across an interesting paper that puzzled me. It itself did not offer answers, just documented the trends, so it made me ponder for explanations. The paper has to do with the paradox with declining female happiness. Why a paradox? Well, because women’s lives have improved significantly in the past century, even in the past few decades. They are becoming more educated, participate actively in the labor force, the wage gap with men has decreased somewhat, technological advances decrease their labour in the household, etc. Women themselves also agree that their lives have improved. However, their happiness/life satisfaction levels have dropped progressively in the past 3-4 decades in Western Europe and the US in comparison to men. Whereas it used to be the case they women would report higher life satisfaction than men, now things have reversed. The big question, of course, is why?
One explanation would be that though women are more often participating in the labor force than before, they are still expected to carry the burden of the household chores, making it something of a “second” shift of work. However, if this was the case, the declining happiness would have been observed only for working women, but stay-at-home housewives do not report any higher levels of life satisfaction. So this could not be the whole explanation.
What is more, the trend is observed across different samples of the population, and women from different educational, socioeconomic backgrounds, from different ethnicities, having different marital status and irrespective of whether they have children or not.
Another possibility is that despite the higher opportunities that women nowadays have compared to a few decades ago, their relative comparison to men and the opportunities available to men exert a negative effect on women’s well-being. Comparison to one’s peers can have an important impact on the way we value our own satisfaction with life. Then, things such the wage gap, could have an important role in women’s overall well-being. However, there is another curious paradox. Despite the obvious inequalities in the work place, women report high work satisfaction (even higher than men).
Is it perhaps simple: the whole complexity of what is expected of women nowadays and the stress it brings about? Is inequality simply changing form? From one hand, women are expected to have regular jobs, just as men, but the burden of taking care of the children and the household work still falls on women. Not to mention (this is a very unscientific and absolutely unmeasured argument and comes mainly from personal observations) the expectations that surround what a woman should be and how she should look like or act? It is expected of women to at least put some effort and take care of themselves (if not always look stunning), they are expected to stay healthy and look good, it is not encouraged if they lose their nerves every now and then, complaining is also often criticised and frowned upon. And all this while building a successful career, running an impeccable household, and raising children to become good and responsible human being? Well, I am not surprised their happiness is declining. But, of course, we need more detailed data from move from the anecdote to the real argument.
Maybe the way women evaluate their life satisfaction also has changed. In fact, it is difficult to rule that out completely. Having, theoretically, equality but in reality, being obstructed by so many factors in obtaining it, must be frustrating indeed. Whatever the reason, the issue is definitely very interesting, deserves our attention and hopefully, soon the mystery will be solved, and we will be seeing more happy, smiling ladies around us.