As reported in the New York Times, several new studies suggest an interesting trend in happiness when comparing men and women over the past 35 years. These studies used an interesting methodology. Rather than ask general questions about overall happiness, they instead asked people to rate their happiness while doing various tasks and activities. The researchers give people pagers that go off at random intervals. When the pager goes off, the person writes down what they are doing, and rates the happiness level they have doing the activity. This provides very interesting data that allows us to make conclusions about how people use their time and how enjoyable their activities are.
These studies show some interesting changes since the 1970’s. In the early 1970’s, women reported being more happy than men. Now it has reversed. Men now report being slightly more happy than women.
There are other changes as well. Compared to the 1970’s, men spend less time working, and more time relaxing. In contrast, now women spend more time doing paid work. Forty years ago, the typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in doing activities considered unpleasant, or 40 minutes more than a typical man. Today, with women working more, and men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.
Even though women now spend more time doing paid work, they still spend just as much time doing unpleasant unpaid work. But the types of unpaid work have changed. For instance, women spend less time dusting. Is this because of some magic anti-dust technology? (We wish!) No, our houses are just dustier, and probably women care more about this than men. Perhaps this accounts for part of the happiness shift.
Another factor is changing expectations. Women probably have much higher expectations for life than they did 40 years ago. To quote from the New York Times article about this: “Ms. Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother’s goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. ‘I sort of want all those things, too,’ the student said, as Ms. Stevenson recalled, ‘but I also want to have a great career and have an impact on the broader world.’”
This creates a situation where unhappiness is much more likely. It’s hard to do it all, and men mostly don’t even try. We don’t try to have the beautiful house and well-adjusted kids, we just want a tolerably clean house and food on the table and kids who stay out of jail! Men have much lower and more reasonable expectations, and thus are often happier and less stressed.
Some more tidbits from the same research. Men enjoy spending time with their parents more than women. Women rated it less pleasant than doing laundry! Why? Probably because women do more work when they are with their parents and men just hang out and watch the football game with their dads.
Researchers also are finding there a happiness gap in high school kids. The percentage of high school boys that report being very happy is now 25 %, up from 16% in 1976. But 22% of girls report being very happy, which is the same as in 1976.
What has changed? Why are boys getting more happy, when girls are not? There are a number of theories but no one knows for sure. One theory is the “hottie” theory. The idea is that in the 1970’s all a girl needed to be was pretty, whereas now girls are expected to not only be “effortlessly hot” but also good students, good athletes, and popular, and get into a top college. The problem with this theory is that if it were completely correct, then girls should show a drop in happiness levels now, instead of the same happiness levels.
Although I think there is something to the “hottie theory”, I suspect what has really changed is the lives of boys. I was recently at a large family gathering, reminiscing about the past, and one thing that is different is the level of violence in schools. I don’t mean school shootings, or other kinds of dramatic violence, but rather plain old bullying and beating up. There is much less tolerance for these types of occurrences now than in 1976. So the experience of being bullied is much less prevalent now.
Another factor is the de-emphasis on athletic achievements. Now you can be cool without being an athlete. There is more emphasis on academic achievement, and a clever computer programmer can get girls just as well as the quarterback.
Which leads me to another very important change—sex. When I was a teenager in the 1970’s it was rare for kids to be sexually active before college. This led to a lot of sexual frustration for boys. Now it is the norm to be sexually active, so boys are having more and better sex at a much younger age, which I am quite certain improves their happiness levels.
So in conclusion, although the effects are small, men and boys are getting happier, while women fall behind. Much of this is because of changing expectations. In becoming more liberated, women have unfortunately taken on many more expectations for their work performance, but men have not picked up the slack at home. So women end up doing too much, and have a hard time downsizing their expectations for their house work and house appearance.
But it should be pointed out that these differences are small, and perhaps reflect more than anything else the changing expectations of boys and girls, and men and women. For women to be more happy, they probably have to do several things. One, they should push and encourage the men in their lives to do more housework and parenting, and they should do more relaxing. Second, they need to realize that they can’t “do it all” and lower their standards for household cleanliness and other household tasks. This will be hard for many women.
All in all, it’s good to be a man…
Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge ™ All Rights Reserved