For years, researchers have puzzled over a phenomenon known as the “female happiness paradox.” A number of global surveys found that women experience higher levels of life satisfaction than men—but also higher levels of stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Meanwhile, a well-known 2009 study found that American women’s self-reported happiness had fallen in the decades since the 1970s, even as the gender equality movement made important strides.
So are women happy or not? A new working paper, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, claims to have solved the paradox. Labor economists David Blanchflower and Alex Bryson analyze global data and conclude that “women are always and everywhere more unhappy than men.”
The authors explain that the female happiness paradox emerged in part because of the types of questions researchers ask. If surveys ask men and women about how satisfied they are with their lives, trends may vary depending on where they live, the year, or even the season. Including controls for other factors besides gender (such as marital status) can also muddy the results; for example, it’s not necessarily clear whether marriage makes people happier, or if happier people are more likely to get married.
By contrast, “if you look at unhappiness metrics—sadness, anxiety, depression, loneliness—women are less happy than men,” says Bryson, a professor of quantitative social science at University College London. “It’s pretty much a constant, and it’s been that way for a long time.” The finding holds across countries and over different time periods.
Now that’s settled! Hurray?
Does sexism impact women’s mental health?
The paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, isn’t focused on unpacking the causes behind women’s greater unhappiness. But it’s possible that social expectations that women take on a disproportionate amount of childcare responsibilities and household labor, often in addition to their paid jobs, play a role.
Supporting this theory is the fact that women’s mental health took a greater hit than men’s during the pandemic. In the US, “men had lower levels of anxiety, worried less and were less likely than women to say they were unhappy and depressed in 2020 and 2021,” according to an earlier working paper by Bryson and Blanchflower, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College. They cite the burden that the pandemic placed on mothers as a contributing factor, as well as the fact that women are “more likely to be front-line key workers facing considerable strain at work, and because they have been more likely to be furloughed or otherwise faced disruptions to their labor market participation.”
Living with daily experiences of sexism may take a toll on women’s mental health, too. A 2020 study of 4,688 Czech child-bearing women, for example, found that women who felt impacted by gender discrimination also reported more depressive symptoms.
However, in Bryson’s view, such explanations for women’s greater levels of unhappiness are somewhat speculative. “There are no simple answers to many of these questions,” he says.
He points out, for example, that monthly data show that while women’s happiness fell more sharply than men’s during the pandemic, women’s happiness also rebounded more quickly. Bryson wonders if there could be a relationship between this resilience and research suggesting that female fetuses may be more likely than male fetuses to survive during extreme crises like war and famine.
Why economists care about happiness
Spotting demographic patterns in happiness isn’t just important from a psychological perspective. It matters to economists, too.
“Most economists in the old days were only really interested in how people felt if it provided information about how they behaved”—for example, how workers’ job satisfaction predicted quit rates in the labor market, Bryson explains.
But in the decades since the 1970s, economists have become increasingly interested in subjective well-being in its own right. “Many economists think of well-being as capturing utility—the value of things,” Bryson says. If it does turn out that societal structures are the cause of greater unhappiness among women, perhaps that’s a sign of just how much value gender equality can provide.