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The Paradox of Female Happiness

Women are about 75 per cent more likely than men to report having recently suffered from depression. Women are also about 60 per cent more likely to report an anxiety disorder. These sharp discrepancies observed by Oxford professor Daniel Freeman, were found in eight of 12 nations from which statistics were taken. They also support a study which found that women reported higher levels of happiness than men in the 1960s but that this gender gap has now reversed. Why the change?

What does this mean when women are healthier, better educated, enjoy more economic freedom and more opportunities than we did 35 years ago? Since the 1960s it has become socially acceptable to leave unhappy marriages. The stigma that once existed around free expression of female sexuality has softened. Legislation is in place to protect women from sexual harassment. By many objective measures, women in the West have never been more liberated.

For all of this improvement many women are unhappy. Freeman, a clinical psychologist, noticed a gap in the literature on sex differences in mental health conditions and investigated national mental health surveys taken from the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health disorders, with the sharpest discrepancies in depression and anxiety.

Freeman was careful to examine whether women were more likely to report health problems than men, or more willing than men to seek help. In The Stressed Sex, co-written with his brother Jason, and published by Oxford University Press, the authors conclude that while these factors may have an impact they cannot solely explain the differences found between the genders.

They show that while men suffer higher rates of substance abuse, ADHD and autism, women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, which are much more common, and rates of these conditions are on the rise. It appears that women’s mental health is in fact a “major public health issue”.

The causes of mental illness are complex. There is no single factor which sets one off, and psychologists will look at a range of variables in an attempt to understand etiology. Biological factors, thought processes and social structures are all involved. Thinking styles such as rumination are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression and genetics also play their role. But Freeman points out that the main contributing factor to the decline in women’s mental health could actually be stress.

Women make constant decisions about how to parcel out their time most efficiently. We have careers and children to juggle as well as relationships and domestic labour. Making a priority of one area always leaves another to be neglected (even just for a short time). Men too face these challenges, but for women it seems these trade-offs are pressure-cooked. The unending negotiation of conflicting life domains takes an emotional toll.

Interestingly, the findings of Freeman were foreshadowed four years ago in a watershed paper by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who found that women’s happiness has declined relative to men’s. Looking at data stretching over 35 years, across America and Europe, it was found that women reported higher levels of happiness in the 1960s and were happier relative to men. This gender gap has now reversed, with men the happier sex.

The decline in female subjective wellbeing was found to cut across both class and race and held true for women of all ages, with children and without.

The authors of this rather provocative study avoided providing glib answers to the questions their paper raised. But a decline in 35 years cannot be attributed to such things as genetics – the cause must be largely environmental. Some will say the decline is due to ongoing prejudices against women, structural barriers, and patriarchal oppression. Traditionalists might point out that today in many ways courtship and romance are ‘dead’. Perhaps men are enjoying license for irresponsibility and selfish behavior that was not so permissible in the past.

While these factors may contribute, it could simply be that women are liberated but stressed. More opportunities to succeed mean more opportunities to fail. Anxiety and depression often hit us when we feel as though we don’t measure up. And with so many domains to now excel in, we can’t be blamed for feeling less than adequate for not aspiring for excellence in all of them.

For all of the discussions about work/life balance, what is notably missed from the conversation are such things as self-care and leisure time. Important variables such as exercise, sleep, a healthy diet and social connectedness take a back seat to career and domestic labour in many women’s lives.

If happiness was found to be higher in women 35 years ago, those who speak on women’s behalf might want to rethink the feminist obsession with power, status and economic production. Advocates may want to reconsider the importance of other outcomes such as health and wellbeing. If women really are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, we have some difficult truths to face up to in regards to why.

This post was originally published on clairelehmann.wordpress.com

9 Comments

  1. It seems women have paid a high price to enter the male dominated social and occupational sphere.

    I wonder if the tendency of women to conformity (more so than men) accentuates self criticism and unhappiness?

  2. Greg McNamara says

    Obviously we’re dealing in generalisms but that said..

    Women place higher expectations on themselves and both men and women place higher expectations on their children. High levels of expectation are great for goal-setting but very often lead to high levels of disappointment. Women now also accept greater responsibility for the social and economic status of the family.

    Men are less likely to admit depression because they are less likely to unburden themselves in an environment where they are competing primarily with long-held expectations of themselves. More understanding of what depression is and how it can be managed is needed

    Our society is evermore competitive and good enough is no longer good enough for many. We are busier than ever and our interaction with government and community in general, is far more complex than it ever was.

    Trust in the ability of others to solve our problems has also diminished, as criticism of once accepted paradigms is far more common and readily accessible.

    The future too is uncertain for many as we transit a period of workplace change that is both unprecedented and unpredictable.

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  4. wildhog says

    Why are women less happy than half a century ago? Because going to work sucks.

  5. Had I, a man, cited these statistics, I technically would have been guilty of “woman abuse” as per the Duluth Abuse Intervention Program (DAIP)’s Wheel of Power and Control, in that I would have said to have been “trying to make her believe that she’s crazy.”

    Given my take on gender narcissism being the basis for ideological/pop feminism, following the life path dictated by women who are unconsciously ashamed of and hate being women (ideological feminists) is a guaranteed life failure for a large portion of women.

    Small wonder their happiness has declined. Being an innately happy woman is verboten to the ideo/pop fems. Misery loves company.

  6. I agree, sociopolitical gender equity is linked to larger sex differences in personality traits closely associated with negative emotions like depression and anxiety—neuroticism. Several large cross-cultural studies have confirmed these sex differences across dozens of nations (Costa et al., 2001; Lippa, 2010; Schmitt et al., 2008). Women have been found to score higher in overall neuroticism in a studies of 26 nations (d = -0.26; Costa et al., 2001), 53 nations (d = -0.41; Lippa, 2010), and 56 nations (d = -0.40; Schmitt et al., 2008). Importantly, all of these cross-cultural studies find sex differences in neuroticism are larger in cultures with more sociopolitical gender equity. So in more gender egalitarian nations sex differences in neuroticism are larger, not smaller as would be expected if sex differences come only from gender roles, learning, and patriarchy.

    Similar results are found in studies depression. Men and women tend to differ in average levels of depression (Hyde et al., 2008), a sex difference that is apparent in most cultures (Hopcroft & McLaughlin, 2012; Van de Velde, Bracke, & Levecque, 2010). The sex gap in depression is wider in high gender equity societies than in low gender equity societies. Hopcroft speculates that this is due in part to differential effects of children on feelings of depression for women in high and low equity countries. For women in high gender equity countries, children promote feelings of depression, whereas for unemployed women in low gender equity countries the reverse is true. There is little difference in the effect of children on feelings of depression for men in high and low gender equity countries.

  7. skeptic dude says

    I think that it’s not that much of a great critique on “feminism”. And I’m not exactly someone who labels himself as “feminist”, at least not meaning much more than “yeah, equal rights, and women also can like sex”. There’s plenty of room for critique on specifics of feminist discourses on job discrimination and so on, but it’s not something entirely fictitious. An “obsession with power”, or more properly phrasing, a concern with fairness or parity of power, is then *directly* relevant to the well being of the majority of women who need to work to make a living, who can’t just afford to be supported by their husbands or family.

    I was momentarily quite enthusiastic of something that looked from a google search (for “evidence based feminism”) like an curious, decent and deserved critique of “vocal feminism”, but now I’m kind of afraid I’ll be disappointed as I continue to read. I hope not.

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