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The paradox of declining female happiness

Jennifer Ferrara

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

Jennifer Ferrara

Last May, two researchers from the Wharton School of Business published a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”  According to Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, the lives of women in the United States have improved over the last 35 years according to most objective measures, but “measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined absolutely and relative to men.” When I first heard about the study, I thought that made sense because most women now work outside the home, and women have discovered what men have long known: most work is not fun.

But then I actually read the study.  According to Stevenson and Wolfers, the relative decline in women’s happiness “is ubiquitous, and holds for both working and stay-at-home mothers, for those married and divorced, and across the education distribution.”   Contrary to popular opinion, women’s unhappiness is not due to an increase in demands on their time. The researchers debunk the notion that increased opportunities for women have resulted in more hours spent on work in the market and home. Time use surveys show that total work hours have declined since 1965 for both men and women.  Moreover, men spend less time at work and far more hours working in home production.  In short, women have never had it so good.   

One of the most interesting and disturbing findings of the study is that teenage girls today are less happy than boys and girls in prior generations.  They increasingly find themselves under pressure to perform in many areas and to be successful in their chosen line of work.  They report less satisfaction with friends and the way they spend their leisure time.
Although Stevenson and Wolfers admit that they don’t know why female happiness has declined, they suggest several possible reasons. Perhaps women are more affected than men by broad socio-economic forces, such as, decreased social cohesion, increased anxiety and neuroticism.  Perhaps the increase in opportunities for women outside the home has increased what women require to declare themselves happy and contributed to a sense that life is not measuring up.  Or maybe women find “the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness.” 

All of these factors have probably contributed to the problem.  I doubt there is one answer to the question of why women are less happy today than in the past.  But the research seems to suggest that women feel pressured to perform in ways that cause them stress.  It doesn’t matter if women stay at home or work in the marketplace.  The glorification of the professional in our society (everyone, including my hairdresser is now a professional) has led women to believe they must perform in all aspects of their lives.  Some stay-at-home moms mistakenly think they must excel at all that they do because they bring the mentality of the workplace into the home.  The principle at my kids’ school calls them MBA moms.  Thinking we have to be best at everything we do often leads to feelings of anger and self-loathing because we inevitably fall short.

The great Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton says, “A thing worth doing is a thing worth doing badly.”  When he made this statement, he had in mind the elegant, nonprofessional woman of the past who dabbled in many things but was master of none.  According to Chesterton, the primary role of the woman is to be, what he calls, “the great amateur”—not in the sense that she is good at nothing, but in the sense that she must be able to do many things.  The average man, by contrast, has to be “a specialist; he has not only to learn a trade, but to learn it so well as to uphold himself in a more or less ruthless society.”  This understanding of the professional has become the standard by which men and women live.  However, it is antithetical to the female nature.

Chesterton explains, that “much of what is called the woman’s subservience, and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary with the disease.”  Pope John Paul II calls this capacity to respond to others the “feminine genius.”  The gift of self and acceptance of others which women represent is “the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women.”

Unfortunately our society no longer recognizes the importance of the truly feminine.  Both men and women are expected to be like men.  As long as women try to be like men or measure themselves by standards set by men, they will not be truly happy.  Men will always be better at being men than women.   I believe the road back to female happiness lies in our once again embracing our feminine characteristics.  To paraphrase Chesterton, the world must keep amateurs, lest we all become professionals and perish.

Topics: Culture , Current Events , Depression , Motherhood , Workplace

Jennifer Ferrara was a Lutheran minister for eleven years before converting to Catholicism in 1998.  She is a full-time mother and part-time writer, and has written numerous articles on religion and culture. She is co-editor of Women in Search of Truth: Converts to Catholicism Tell Their Stories (Our Sunday Visitor).  She resides in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with her husband, twin sons, and daughter. 

View all articles by Jennifer Ferrara

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April 23, 2014

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