Paper: The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

Click to access w14969.pdf

The more feminist policies and lifestyles introduced, the more unhappy the women.

Both men and women in the U.S. have faced some other challenging societal trends in the past 30 years as well. While the male-female wage gap converged over this period, income inequality rose sharply through the 1980s and has continued to rise, albeit more slowly, in recent decades. Moreover, the real wages of many men fell during much of this period. In particular, real wages for men with less than a college degree fell from 1979-1995 (Autor, Katz, & Kearney, 2008). Many households experienced only moderate growth in household income, with those in the bottom half of the income distribution experiencing real growth of less than 0.5% a year from 1973 to 2005 (Goldin and Katz, 2007) and much of this increase was due to the additional earnings of wives. Along with this rise in income inequality has come concerns about increasing income volatility, and a more general concern about households bearing more health and retirement risk (Hacker, 2007). While these trends have impacted both men and women, it is possible that the effect of these trends on happiness has differed by gender.

Even if women were made unambiguously better off throughout this period, a richer consideration of the psychology behind happiness might suggest that greater gender equality may lead to a fall in measured well-being. For example, if happiness is assessed relative to outcomes for one’s reference group, then greater equality may have led more women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them. In turn, women might find their relative position lower than when their reference group included only women. This change in the reference group may make women worse off or it may simply represent a change in their reporting behavior. An alternative form of reference dependent preferences relates well-being to whether or not expectations are met. If the women’s movement raised women’s expectations faster than society was able to meet them, they would be more likely to be disappointed by their actual experienced lives. As women’s expectations move into alignment with their experiences this decline in happiness may reverse. A further alternative suggests that happiness may be driven by good news about lifetime utility (Kimball & Willis, 2006) . Under this view, the salience of the women’s movement fuelled elation in the 1970s that has dissipated in the ensuing years. …

Our contribution in this paper is to carefully document trends over several decades in subjective well-being by gender in the United States and other industrialized countries, collecting evidence across a wide array of datasets covering various demographic groups, time periods, countries, and measures of subjective well-being. …

However, the relative declines found for Europe and the US lie within a 95% confidence interval of 125 of the 147 we countries we examine.


1. Be civil. 2. Be logical or fair. 3. Do not bore me.

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