The Happiness Index

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Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers released a paper in May of this year for the NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) about “the paradox of declining female happiness. ” Soon after, op-ed columnist for the New York Times  Ross Douthat wrote a column about the paper titled “Liberated and Unhappy.” And now we have Maureen Dowd, another NYT columnist, weighing in on the same topic in “Blue is the New Black.” (I don’t understand the title, but maybe that’s just me.)

We feminists are used to being blamed for all of society’s ills. In fact, women in general ought to be used to that, especially the ones who are uppity enough to sound off about their complaints. Look at parenting: which parent comes under the most fire when it comes to the success of their children? Apparently all the dad has to do is be there to be effective. (How many times have you heard it said that single-parent–read “mother” –households would be better off if there were a man in the house?) But the mother has to do far more than just be there. And God help her, if she doesn’t fulfill all her roles, she will be blamed for the problems her children have, as well as for all the ills of society.

This could be part of the reason women are unhappy. But does it account for their greater unhappiness which has coincidentally occurred since the feminist revolution? Douthat writes:

“In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of “the problem with no name,” American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”

Dowd goes a step further:

“When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

And yet how many of today’s women would want to trade their lives for the lives their mothers lived? And is it really all the choices that are making women unhappy?

I have compiled what I call “The Happiness Index.” What it does is list several factors that can contribute to a sense of well-being (or the reverse) and asks a woman to rate where she stands on a scale from 1 to 5, or “very unhappy, “unhappy,” “neutral (neither happy or unhappy),” “happy” or “very happy.”

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Now add up your scores. The higher the score, the happier you are (and the lower, the unhappier, of course). Pretty simple.

Blaming–or crediting–the feminist movement alone for your unhappiness or happiness is pointless. It’s not the degree of choice that stresses women out, it’s whether or not they have choices. It’s not what your marital status is that makes you happy or unhappy–it’s how you feel about your status, not to mention the quality of the relationships you do have. In fact, what you make of all these situations is the greatest factor of all.

And then there’s the question of the effect feminism itself has had on all of these areas. To what degree can you blame feminism for your looks, how you’re aging and and your health? Does feminism aid or hinder your parenting or relationship skills? Has feminism made your economic situation better or worse (or are there other factors that have contributed to your economic stability or instability? If you are divorced, has feminism given you more power in the negotiations? Do you think you would have gotten that promotion, salary, admission or career without feminism? Has feminism made it more or less likely that you will be stuck in a low-paying job? Would you have had enough courage to ask for sexual satisfaction or to seek out birth control if this were the ’50s?

I deplore knee-jerk reactions in either direction when it comes to the debate about what feminism has done for women–and men–in our society. What is really called for is a thoughtful consideration of all the factors that can influence happiness levels. The pursuit of happiness is a tricky thing, but important enough to be mentioned in our constitution along with life and liberty. What part does feminism play in your life satisfaction? Only you can decide.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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