What Is Happiness Anyway?

A lot of ink has been spilt in the past few days on the issue of whether women are unhappier now than they used to be. But what is a woman’s happiness, and does it make any sense to try to measure it?

As handily deconstructed by Megan last week, the Times‘s Ross Douthat thinks “women’s happiness” is a great excuse for shaming various groups of people. According to the conservative columnist, the rise of single motherhood has made women unhappy, and as a cure we need “a new-model stigma […] that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.” Because nothing makes ladies jollier than stigmatizing others! For the Daily Mail, women’s happiness is an excuse to quote anti-working-mother advocate Erin Pizzey (“The hard-won freedom of choice has imprisoned women. I just see an exhausted generation trying to do it all.”) and a total idiot (“You’ve got real democracy and there really are no glass ceilings, despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time.”)

Women’s happiness is an ideological football for conservative pundits, but what is it for actual women? Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, authors of the study “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” which inspired both Douthat and the Mail, purport to have found that women are less happy, both absolutely and relative to men, than they were 35 years ago. They measured happiness by asking the question, “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?” They also asked subjects about “their satisfaction with a number of aspects of their life such as their marriage, their health, their financial situation, and their job.” Stevenson and Wolfers write:

Although the validity of these measures remains a somewhat open question, a variety of evidence points to a robust correlation between answers to subjective wellbeing questions and more objective measures of personal well-being. For example, answers to subjective well-being questions have been shown to be correlated with physical evidence of affect such as smiling, laughing, heart rate measures, sociability, and electrical activity in the brain (Diener, 1984). Measures of individual happiness or life satisfaction are also correlated with other subjective assessments of well-being such as independent evaluations by friends, self-reported health, sleep quality, and personality (Diener, Lucas, and Scollon, 2006; Kahnman and Krueger, 2006).

So basically, if you say you’re happy, you also seem happy to other people, whether those people are your friends or doctors measuring your heart rate. But this constellation of factors — your self-reported happiness, your “sociability,” how often you laugh — doesn’t necessarily measure whether or not you’re leading a good life. Nor does your answer to the question “would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” necessarily capture all the nuances of a fulfilling, worthwhile sojourn on this planet.

Whenever I go through a stressful time, I end up reading a lot about happiness. Most recently, I’ve been looking at Gretchen Rubin’s Slate blog, The Happiness Project. The blog has a lot of good, practical tips — like breaking your routine and remembering what you loved as a child — but it’s also calming because it presents happiness as something concrete you can work toward using relatively simple techniques.

The thing is, this view of happiness is kind of reductive. It’s absolutely true that there are basic things you can do to make yourself feel better about your life, and I do believe that Stevenson and Wolfers’s question measures something. But what it measures is just a slice of a person’s total experience of herself and the world. It’s an important place, sure, and interesting to think about, but we can’t evaluate women’s lives, feminism, or society based on it alone. It’s obviously ridiculous to call for a new social stigma based on the results of one study, but it’s also wrong to base too much public policy — or even too much of your evaluation of your own life — on a single measurement of it. I believe happiness is important, but I also know that some of my fondest memories are from times when I felt like absolute shit. A full life contains sorrow and fear and anger and uncertainty, and when we feel these things, we shouldn’t assume that either feminism or we ourselves have failed.

Liberated And Unhappy [New York Times]
Women Are More Unhappy Despite 40 Years Of Feminism, Claims Study [Daily Mail]
The Happiness Project [Slate]
Headlines, Headlines, Headlines [The F Word]
The Paradox Of Declining Female Happiness [Full Paper]

Earlier: Feminism Makes Women Unhappy, And Other Tall Tales
Man Declares That The Glass Ceiling No Longer Exists

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