Happiness is in the eye of the researcher

Happiness is in the eye of the researcher

Happiness is in the eye of the researcher

October 15, 2007

Kathleen Costello

Star Gazette.com

Supposedly, men are happier than women.

According to two recent studies, happiness levels have shifted over the past 40 years. During the 1970s, slightly more women than men claimed to be happy with their lives, but a recent report by two University of Pennsylvania researchers found the roles reversed: Today, slightly more men than women profess happiness.

A second report by a Princeton economist found an additional pattern. Men, since the 1960s, have reduced the number of activities they find “unpleasant.” They work less and relax more than in previous years. Women, however, are spending almost as much time on unpleasant activities as they did 40 years ago: about 23 hours a week. The difference is that 40 years ago this totaled about 40 more minutes than men, while today, it’s 90 minutes more than men.

Analysts have proposed a host of possible explanations for this gender shift: First, since women have more opportunities than they did in the ’60s, they may have higher ambitions than in the past. Experts say women may put unreasonable expectations on themselves, wanting to excel at work and in the home — and are left with a sense that they can’t possibly do everything. Other researchers state that women may not receive enough support at work (with a substantial wage gap between men and women and a lack of federal paid maternity leave). And still others say that women don’t have sufficient help at home from their spouses, so that when they get home from work, they still take care of all the household duties.

These are all valid possibilities — assuming that all women are employed, heterosexual, married, and either want or have children. The expert “explanations” are purely speculative. And the surveys assume that all people possess the same criteria for happiness.

I’m always suspicious of sweeping survey results, especially those that deal with a subjective topic such as happiness. What makes me happy is not necessarily what makes other 39-year-old working mothers happy.

For some, happiness may be something that is felt in individual moments, in small but wonderful increments.

I feel happy after reading a great book or while watching birds in my backyard. Sometimes my children even make me happy. Take a recent night, when my 5-year-old son couldn’t decide on a Halloween costume. He’d narrowed it down to three possibilities, and eliminated a fourth by earnestly announcing:

“I know I don’t want to be a weirdwolf!”

The thought of this misused term made me laugh for days. Moments such as this can have a cumulative effect on overall happiness.

Perhaps our lives have become more complex in 40 years; this might render simplistic questions about general happiness as an inaccurate gauge of how we truly feel. Whether men or women have experienced any longtime change in happiness is probably less important than figuring out what makes each of us happy individually. This could be as complex as a career change.

Or as simple as a weirdwolf.