Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
Am I happy? What a stupid question. Do you mean happy as in content? Joyful? Hopeful? Relieved? Counting my blessings? Intent on absorbing work? Depending on your definition–and when you ask me, and who you are–I could give a dozen different answers. If you really want to know how I feel about my life, you would have to get to know me and ask me a whole lot of particular questions, which could not necessarily be boiled down to a single answer, and could certainly not be used to compare my happiness with someone else’s–because how can anyone know if what I mean by happiness is what that other person means? Keats was happy when he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale,” Eichmann was happy when he met his daily quota of murdered Jews, and I am happy to be living this year in Berlin. Only a pollster (or an economist) would conflate these things. In fact, only a pollster would think that people tell pollsters the truth.
But why let quibbles stand in the way of a chance to attack feminism? The Huffington Post has sparked a national blatherfest with a series of posts by self-help guru Marcus Buckingham, which Arianna, in her trademark breathless fashion, blurbs as “the sad, shocking truth about how women are feeling.” Relying on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” an analysis of General Social Survey data by Wharton’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, Buckingham claims that women are less happy than they used to be, are less happy than men and become increasingly unhappy as they get older. These results, he claims, are independent of whether women are rich or poor, married or single, work or stay home. As he puts it, “though women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they’d like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.” Maureen Dowd concurs that the problem is that women have too many choices–“a paradox, indeed.” Huffington, Buckingham and Dowd are late to the party, actually: Ross Douthat devoted his New York Times column to the subject back in May. His culprit? Increased acceptance of single motherhood. Bring back “social stigma”–for women’s own good.
Using a single statistic as a peg for your pet theory is a game we all can play. But before you leap in with your own, consider this: the actual differences, which Buckingham et al. present as enormous, are tiny. As U Penn professor and blogger Mark Liberman sets it out on Language Log, in 1972-74, 31.9 percent of men said they were very happy, 53 percent said they were pretty happy and 15.1 percent said they were not too happy; among women, the corresponding figures were 37 percent, 49.4 percent and 13.6 percent. For 2004, 2006 and 2008, 29.8 percent of men said they were very happy, 56.1 percent were pretty happy and 14 percent were not too happy; for women it was 31.2, 54.9 and 13.9. In other words, women today self-report a bit less manic joy than three decades ago, as do men, and a bit more modified rapture. But women still say they are happier than do men, contrary to journalistic rumor; and, most important, both in the 1970s and the 2000s, more than eight in ten women and men said they were very or fairly happy. The percentage of “not too happy” men has declined by 1.1 percent, and the percentage of such women has increased by a great big 0.3 percent. Three additional women in a thousand: that’s what the fuss over “women’s unhappiness” is all about.
There are plenty of possible reasons why more people in recent years would report slightly less happiness than thirty years ago. Perhaps people are more lonely–all those hours in front of screens. Perhaps it’s the stressed-out economy, or over-the-top consumerism, or increased inequality, or having George Bush as president, or less leisure time. Or maybe Americans define happiness a bit differently from the way they did in 1972–or are simply becoming a bit more honest. After all, somebody is taking all those legal and illegal mood-elevating drugs, and going to all those therapists, and buying all those books about how to cheer up, like, um, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham. From the information given, there is no way to tell. Nor is it possible to say, simply by looking at the self-reports of men and women over time, what role feminism plays, if any. After all, women moving into higher education and the workforce is not the only thing that has happened in the past thirty years. If you want to play ridiculous numbers games, it could be that feminist gains have made women 10 percent happier, but something else–the fraying of the safety net, the turbo-charged misogyny of pop culture, reading too many self-help books–has canceled it out. You just can’t say. You can, however, safely dismiss those like Buckingham who pooh-pooh the argument that women’s “second shift” at home is to blame because men are doing more. OK, but last time I looked, more was not half. As Dr. Johnson said in another context, If you’re going to calculate, calculate.
None of these possibilities have prevented readers from deluging the Times and the Huffington Post with tut-tuts and I-told-you-so’s to uppity women. But how happy were women, really, in that golden pre-feminist era? Culture critic Caryl Rivers pointed out to me that in 1973, studies showing that married women had the highest levels of psychiatric problems, including depression and anxiety, prompted sociologist Jessie Bernard to declare marriage a “health hazard for women.” If that’s no longer true, why not give feminism some credit?
As for those still sky-high levels of good cheer, I’m skeptical. People answering yes to a pollster’s question about happiness is like saying, “Fine, thanks” when someone asks, “How are you?” If it actually represents a truthful and considered answer, either Americans have entirely given up following the news or the Prozac is working.