Happiness gender gaps

In happiness research, the recorded differences between men and women are small. In Australia, however, women are on average slightly happier than men, though the difference can be tiny – 0.2 on a 0-10 scale in the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, the most recent data I can find.

In the United States, according to this recent paper (pdf) by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, there used to a be a happiness gender gap favouring women, but now it favours men. Compared to 35 years ago, men are on average happier and women unhappier. As Stevenson and Wolfers say, this is a curious result. At least on most of the conventional measures, those were better years for women than for men.

According to The New York Times report of the research:

A big reason that women reported being happier three decades ago — despite far more discrimination — is probably that they had narrower ambitions, Ms. Stevenson says. Many compared themselves only to other women, rather than to men as well. This doesn’t mean they were better off back then.

But wouldn’t men face the added problem also of having to compare themselves to women? Boys now do worse in the classroom than girls, yet statistics reported in the Stevenson and Wolfers paper show that that same trend is apparent in school kids as it is in adults. Though competition with women is less tough in the workplace than in education, men have lost a lot of relative status since the 1970s without, it seems, any negative consequences for their average subjective well-being.

Stevenson and Wolfers looked at European data as well, and similarly found a narrowing of the gender gap, but both sexes were trending upwards in their life satisfaction. In Australia, we don’t have a series of consistent questions to know for sure whether there is also a narrowing of the gender gap, but I think it is possible.

In a couple of surveys in the late 1980s and early 1990s, nearly 6% more women than men gave themselves the highest possible rating of ‘very happy’. In the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, which used a 0-10 scale, with the 10 marked ‘extremely happy’, the differences at both the 9 and 10 marks were each 4%. It’s not much, but perhaps consistent with the US direction (and both sexes in all countries mentioned are still, on average, happy).

Either way, the Stevenson and Wolfers paper again highlights the extremely complex relationship between objective conditions and subjective well-being, and how difficult it is for policymakers to target it. The social democratic boosters of the happiness agenda would have assumed that the vast advances towards gender equality in the last 35 years would have made women happier relative to men. But there is no evidence anywhere in the Western world that this is the case.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.

2 thoughts on “Happiness gender gaps

  1. I think your conclusion hits the nail on the head, Andrew. The happiness/status anxiety/Hamiltonian brigade have gotten away with making very simplistic and unjustified assertions about the supposed benefits of their illiberal policy prescriptions. On the empirical issue, women have been increasingly dealing with the combined pressures of paid work and motherhood. My connection is too slow to open the pdf, but I wonder if the gender gap can be explained by working mothers.


  2. Rajat – Stevenson and Wolfers find that the decline has happened for both employed and not employed women, and for women with and without kids, but I can’t see that they have looked specifically at working mothers. But as the MR post says, with opportunity comes opportunity cost. Despite the insistence of feminists that women get all the benefits of motherhood and all the benefits of career, even with the massive welfare state handouts they demand that isn’t really possible in most cases. To get the most of both kids and career you have to be there for both, and there are still only 24 hours in the day. Men’s understanding of their role as a parent is probably closer to what they can actually deliver, and so they feel less stress or disappointment at not being there constantly for the kids.


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