Women Are More Unhappy Than Ever

What Women Really Think
May 20 2009 10:47 AM

Women Are More Unhappy Than Ever

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Women are unhappier than they have been in 35 years. So suggests a study released earlier this week by the National Bureau of Economics. Two economists at U Penn conducted an exhaustive study of happiness and found that women's "subjective well-being" has declined, "both absolutely and relatively to men," as they put it. In fact, though women have historically had higher self-reported levels of happiness than men, today women are "reporting happiness levels" that are "even lower than those of men." (Men's happiness has dropped, too, but not as much as women's.) Now, happiness is notoriously difficult to study - as I noted a few years back when I wrote about progressive women and unhappiness for Slate - but the findings are nonetheless noteworthy. Though women have made gains in every area over the past 35 years - from education to their place in the work force - these gains do not appear, by the study's measures, to translate into actual contentment. Nor do women's gains in the marketplace translate into zero-sum declines in happiness for men, as some have speculated.

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Why might women be less happy? I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I would have to go back to an answer I offered when I wrote the Slate piece: that the drop in happiness is pegged to an anxiety caused by the plethora of choices available (Barry Schwarz's paradox of choice ) and women's feeling that they have to perform well across more categories. This is not exactly the same as struggling to balance so-called work and life (i.e., children): The study's authors are quick to point out that the decline in happiness is consistent across many categories, irrespective of marital or employment status or whether you have young children. (A notable exception is African-American women, who report rises in well-being.) The authors observe, too, that one common explanation (the advent of the so-called second-shift for women) doesn't seem to be borne out: Time use surveys suggest that men and women experienced "relatively equal declines" in work hours since 1965.

But they do note, as I would, that it's likely that women are measuring their happiness over time using a broader set of criteria. As they crisply put it, it may be, paradoxically, that the women's movement has decreased women's happiness at this moment in time, because "the increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood in believing that one's life is not measuring up." The paradox of choice model might explain, too, why men's happiness has also declined - just not as extremely as women's.

And it suggests that we need to start rethinking the way we conceptualize success in this country. One of the most telling details comes from a study conducted over time of 12 th graders. It now finds a dramatic difference in the happiness levels of boys and girls. Girls are less happy than ever. They also are "increasingly attaching greater importance to 13 of the 14 domains" studied - meaning they feel that they need to "succeed" more in those domains. The only one that hasn't risen in importance? "Finding purpose and meaning in my life."

I've always hated the phrase "having it all" for its tyrannical insistence on impossible perfection. Does this mean it's finally time to put that phrase to rest in the cemetery of bad language?

Photograph of woman by David De Lossy/Getty Images

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.