Monday, October 1, 2007

The Gap of Happiness: Exploring Whether Men are Happier than Women

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Helen Keller believed “happiness is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” And according to George Burns “happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” These are just a few examples of the many ways in which individuals have come to define the concept of happiness. If, however, people view happiness in distinct ways, how can researchers come to accurately measure it? The New York Times recently published an interesting article that examines studies conducted on gender and happiness levels. The article, written by David Leonhardt, looks at two unpublished studies that have concluded that men are slightly happier than women. The first study, by Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, proposes that the decrease in women’s happiness may be due to life improvements they have acquired since the 1970s. Noted in the second study, by Alan Krueger, is the gradual downward trend in the proportion of time men spend on unpleasant activities. Although the findings of these two new studies could help us to better understand the subjective well-being of individuals, the concept of happiness will continue being a stochastic phenomenon, one incapable of being accurately and consistently measured over time.

To begin with, it seems that both studies did an excellent job exploring possible cultural reasons as to why women may at times be less happy than men. One study emphasized the fact that women have obtained access to many more opportunities that were not available to them before, while the other examines the activities that men might find pleasant to partake in but women fail to enjoy. These are important factors to examine because happiness does change from situation to situation. Nevertheless, how one feels at the moment and how one feels on average over time may primarily be a matter of chance and not a matter of statistical significance. This is in fact what one study from the University of Minnesota concluded back in 1996. Therefore, it can be argued that more men may have reported feeling happier than women by chance. John M. Grohol, CEO and publisher of Psych Central, was able to do his own analysis on the raw data from the Stevenson and Wolfer study and asserted that women are becoming more “pretty happy” and less “very happy.” He also found that the “not happy” category remained unchanged (see image to right). In his blog, Grohol assures readers that he is not sure he would read that much into the data, certainly not as much as the authors did.

If we were to look at the findings of these studies from the Biopsychosocial Model perspective, we would note that change in individual’s happiness may be caused by many factors. This model works to explain human behavior by taking into consideration biological, cognitive-affective, social interpersonal, social institutional and cultural factors. Thus, simply stating that because women have faced more life improvements they are less happy is not sufficient evidence. Culture alone has a strong impact on our happiness. Jeremy Dean, a freelance writer and creator of PsyBlog, considers the power of culture and argues that the New York Times article “is not only claiming to describe a happiness gap between the sexes, it is also creating it.” Mental health issues related to women such as depression, postpartum depression and eating disorders may also be at fault for lower levels of happiness.

Finally, the assertion made by the Stevenson and Wolfer study declaring that the decreased happiness in women is ubiquitous across the old and young, employed and unemployed, married and divorced, seems to be a jump to conclusions. This would undoubtedly challenge the studies that have come out in previous years stating that recently divorced women feel liberated and happier. And although the study claims to be ubiquitous, it also states that the phenomenon does not occur across racial groups. For example, African American women have become happier just as much as African American men have. The study also points out that women’s subjective well-being “may be driven simply by a change in how [they] answer the question, i.e. a measurement, rather, than a hedonic trend.” These speculations, therefore, do not support the claim that women are in fact less happy than men.

Ubiquitous or not, happiness continues to be a complicated state of being to measure. Many factors influence it and the way happiness is experienced varies from individual to individual. Although studies such as the one conducted by Krueger or Stevenson and Wolfer provide some insight as to how gender differences in society explain happiness levels, their findings fail to provide external validity. Typically at the end of psychology articles, the authors of the study present ideas for possible future research that may offer more validity to their claims. In this case, however, given the complexity of the measuring happiness between genders I believe that further research might not contribute much to what is already known.

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