This just in: Men are as miserable as women. At least that’s what we learn from a new study by Arizona State professor Chris M. Herbst, who suggests that men’s happiness has taken as big a dive as women’s over the past several years.
We think that’s good news.
Back in 2009, Penn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published ground-breaking research that sent the interwebs atwitter. Titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” the study found that while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men.
At which point, the pundits swarmed: Was the women’s movement — responsible for ushering women out of the kitchen and into the workplace — to blame for this happiness gap? Were women themselves at fault for not taking proper care of themselves? There must be something wrong with you if you’re not happy, the media howled. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself or to a workplace that has not changed to accommodate the new reality: though women represent close to half of the workforce, the workplace still operates like a set from “Mad Men”as if the ideal employee is one with Betty Draper at home to take care of business.
Back to Herbst’s study: Not content to let women own their own funk, he used a different measure of well-being — happiness is notoriously hard to measure, if not define — to find that men’s life satisfaction had not only declined as much as women’s over the past two decades, but had gone south even more rapidly than women’s in recent years:
Men and women have also experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health. In a further departure from [Stevenson and Wolfers] results, I find that although the downward trend in life satisfaction became less severe for men and women over time, the slowdown occurred more aggressively among women. As a result, men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late-1980s.
He suggests the reason may be a combination of several factors based on the erosion in social and civic engagement — coupled with economic insecurity.
Maybe so, but we think there’s something else at play. Because we’re optimists, we tend to think that all of this declining happiness business may be a sign of something positive: gender roles are shifting, and we — men and women alike — are working through the growing pains. As men begin to share more of the second shift in our dual-career families, are they also sharing more of the angst? And will that lead to positive change?
A new study out of the Families and Work Institute seems to suggest yes. According to “The New Male Mystique,” released last month, as gender roles have begun to shift—men’s stress over work-and-family conflict has increased. Last year, we interviewed Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute and an author of the report, for our book and she told us that preliminary data on increasing stress levels among men suggested that the idea of work–life fit might move out of the pink ghetto and start being framed as change that benefits all of us.
Some might snipe that it’s time already that men feel the conflict too. But Galinsky believes that, as the generation of men who are (or who expect to be) more involved at home climb the ranks, they’re likely to be more amenable to family-friendly policies. She said her studies find that when supervisors—regardless of age or gender—have responsibilities for kids or elders, they are seen as more supportive of work–life policies, because, said Galinsky, “when you go through it yourself, typically you feel different about it.
What’s more, she told us, when men as well as women leave work to pick up kids—or if dad does the drop-off at the onsite daycare center— the stigma, and that maternal wall, starts to go away. “In an ideal world,” Galinsky said, “work would work for you and your employer, and there are some policies that would help you do that, but where the rubber hits the road is how your supervisor and coworkers treat you. You can work at a company that has fantastic policies, or live in a country that has fantastic policies, and you can still have a horrible situation. There has to be a culture where people value personal and family time.”
All of which goes to the heart of what’s often left out of studies of satisfaction and well-being: what has been dubbed a personal issue is really a political one. Maybe instead of kvetching about who’s happier than whom, what we ought to be talking about is changes in workplace structures and public policy.
And wouldn’t that just make all of us just a little bit more, you know, happy?