The other day Oprah had Martha Stewart on her show. Apparently thousands of women had written in about having Martha show them, once again, how to properly fold a fitted bed sheet. Not only did viewers think about how their fitted sheets should be folded, but they actually took the time to write in to Oprah. Martha performed this feat while audience members mouthed ‘Wooow’ and then broke out into roaring applause. When she was done, the sheet was perfectly rectangular in the shape of a medium sized hard covered book.
Now before the show, the fact that I scrunched my fitted sheets into a ball and shoved them into the linen closet didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen. Now, I keep the linen closet door firmly closed in the off-chance a neighbor should drop by unexpectedly and see how inept I am at folding sheets. This made me think; is the state of our linen closets just one more standard to which women need to measure up? And are these impossible standards contributing to female unhappiness?
This reminded me of a controversial research study conducted by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School, called The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. The study found women’s levels of happiness and subjective well-being have been steadily declining since 1972 – both in absolute terms and relative to men. On many fronts, women have made tremendous progress since 1972. The gender wage gap has been decreasing and except for the least educated of women, women’s real wages have risen. More women are attaining higher levels of education and have now surpassed men. Birth control allows for greater career freedom and household appliances have reduced the amount of time women spend on household chores. Despite all of this, statistics show that women in the US and other parts of the industrialized world are less happy today than they were in 1972.
Since 1972, the United States General Social Survey (GSS) has asked at least 1500 women and men of all ages, education levels, income levels and marital status: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Respondents were also asked about their satisfaction with other aspects of their life including marriage, their health, their financial situation, and their job.
This drop is found in women even controlling for income, children, employment status, marital status, health, age and race – with one exception: African American women are slightly happier than they were in 1972. The researchers also explored five other major studies of subjective well-being and happiness which also reflect declining female happiness levels from the US and other industrialized nations:
- The Virginia Slims Survey of American Women (26,000 people between 1972-2000)
- The Monitoring the Future Survey (430,000 US twelfth graders between 1976-2005)
- The British Household Panel Study (121,000 people between 1991 and 2004)
- The Eurobarometer analysis (636,000 people, between 1973 and 2002) covering 15 countries
- The International Social Survey Program (97,462 people between 1991 and 2001, covering 35 developed countries)
All in all over a million women were surveyed over 3 decades showing similar downward trends for women.
Other Objective Measures
Perhaps we need to also look at more objective data to consider the robustness of this trend. The researchers report that suicide rates for women have been declining, which may indicate that women’s well-being is actually on the rise, but this statistic is tricky when you dig deeper. Some studies show that the worldwide rise in antidepressant use is inversely correlated with suicide rates while other studies show no effects. Thus the effectiveness of antidepressants on reducing suicide rates may be a factor in the decline in the suicide rate. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, however, the rate of completed suicide in men is four times that of women, though more women attempt it. This may indicate that more women are in distress and they are using suicide attempts as a call for help.
Another statistic that raises concern about female well-being is that across many nations, cultures, and ethnicities, women are about twice as likely as men to develop depression. According to the World Health Organization, while depression is the fourth leading cause of disability among men, it is the leading cause among women.
What is Causing this Decline?
Overall, Stevenson and Wolfers do not research the reasons why there has been a decline in female happiness but they do offer a few discussion points. On the satisfaction of women in certain domains in their lives, the researchers concede that one limitation of the GSS data is that there is no way of assessing whether the importance of specific domains to overall happiness has changed over time. The Monitoring the Future Survey does offer some possible insight into this: Young women surveyed are increasingly attaching greater importance to 13 of the 14 life domains examined including ‘success at work’, ‘being a leader in their community’ and ‘contributing to society’. This increase in the importance of several domains in life may suggest that women’s satisfaction with life may have become more complex as they attempt to succeed in so many realms.
The changing role of women in our society has therefore altered what measures of subjective well-being are capturing. The researchers suggest that women may be averaging their overall satisfaction in an increasingly larger domain set and therefore falling averages may be a reflection of women’s difficulty in achieving success in so many domains of life.
A social desirability bias may also be inherent in respondents’ assessment of their well-being in the sense that women may feel more comfortable today expressing their true happiness levels whereas in the 1970’s this might not have been socially acceptable. In which case, this may indicate there is no decline at all.
Finally, the women’s liberation movement offers more opportunities for women to succeed in many dimensions in which they have a broader group of people to compare themselves to. For example, while I work full time and focus on my family and friends in my free time, I still may be comparing my fitted-sheet-folding-abilities with Martha Stewart and feel unsuccessful as a result. (Hypothetically speaking of course.) Women may be comparing themselves to a much broader group, including men, and finding their lives do not measure up.
One final reason for this decline may be that traditional surveys of happiness and subjective well-being, especially as it pertains to women, may require some modifying to accurately capture societal trends. For example, are researchers asking the right questions in these surveys to capture eudaimonic perspectives of happiness compared to hedonic perspectives? While women may find the daily grind of raising children mundane (hedonic perspective) they may feel that raising their children is an honorable way of life that brings an abundance of meaning into their lives (eudaimonic perpsective). Perhaps the surveys themselves require further consideration.
Looking to the Future
The startling statistics on women’s depression rates compared to men indicate that this topic deserves more attention. Are women different from men in the ways they cope with life’s challenges? Has the woman’s liberation movement put more pressure on women to be successful in all areas of life? I will be exploring ‘why’ in part 2 of this article and also how positive psychology can help women be more resilient.
In the meantime, I would like to ask you…Despite all of the progress women have made since 1972, why do you think there has been a decline in female happiness? Let’s start the discussion…
Buckingham, Marcus, (2009). Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. Thomas Nelson.
Isacsson G., Bergman U., Rich C.L., (1996). Epidemiological data suggest antidepressants reduce suicide risk among depressives. Journal of Affective Disorders, 41 (1), pp. 1-8.
Isacsson G (2000), Suicide prevention: a medical breakthrough? Acta Psychiatr Scand 102,113–117
Isacsson, G., Rich, C.L., Jureidini, J., Raven, M. (2010). The increased use of antidepressants has contributed to the world wide reduction in suicide rates. British Journal of Psychiatry 196 (6), pp. 429-433. Abstract.
Mackay J, & Mensah, G. A. (2004). The Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke Geneva: World Health Organization.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990). Sex Differences in Depression. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. New York: Owl Books.
Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J. (2009). The paradox of declining female happiness. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(2), 190–225.
(By the way, if you are at all curious about how to properly fold a fitted bed sheet, click here to watch the video and then call your therapist.)
Warm and Cool courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski
Business Meeting courtesy of Colleen Lane
20/52 (Woman Depressed) courtesy of shanon wise
Women of different ages courtesy of LarsLarsLars!
Kate and Rafi (Mother and child) courtesy of BenedictFrancis