Thanks probably to my mother herself, I'm not. (Sadder than her, that is. I'm almost certainly happier.) But many women today are sadder than their peers were 40 years ago, according to a study by Penn researchers called "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." You may have heard about this study, as best-selling Marcus Buckingham has made quite a stir with it on the Huffington Post, as has Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.

In addition to being less happy than previous generations—while men are getting happier—women are also increasingly sad as they get older.

Why is this happening? Did the women's movement make things better for men rather than women?

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Last week I was on an NPR show called Forum discussing just this with historian Ruth Rosen and one of the study authors. Lots of theories about what might be happening were raised; here is what I think is going on, in brief. You can also listen to the discussion here.

  1. The women's movement changed women's lives, but institutions—like our government, marriages, workplaces, and childcare options—did not also change in the same proportions. Historian Ruth Rosen is particularly articulate on this point here.
  2. Having more choices makes us more free, but it doesn't necessarily make us happier. So now we can choose to go to work (theoretically—some of us have to work) or stay home with our kids, and we have greater choices regarding what we can do for our careers, and greater choices about whether or not to get and stay married. All these choices are important, but they aren't necessarily creating greater happiness. As Barry Schwartz has taught us, there is a paradox that comes with choices: having more choices makes us more dissatisfied with what we choose. So when you pick out some jam at the supermarket, if you choose from only three kinds of jam you'll be happier with your choice than if you choose from 10 kinds. Same thing is true with our lives.
  3. We have fewer strong and frequent social connections than women did 40 years ago. The more we join and participate in groups and see our friends and family, the happier we tend to be. In fact, Robert Putman has shown convincingly that our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our social connections—and that these bonds with others are on the decline.
  4. There are huge discrepancies between our aspirations and our achievements. This is related to point one, above: our expectations are higher about how great our lives will be. We've been raised to believe that we can do anything, be anything. But then we grow up and realize that we actually can't do it all, all at once, and it is deeply disappointing. It makes us sad. And when we try to do everything anyway, we feel both disappointed and insane.
  5. We are also experiencing a related abundance paradox: we feel entitled to having it all. So when we don't get what we want, we feel disappointed, instead of feeling grateful when we do get what we want.

There are, of course, other things at play here, like the fact that women are more likely than men to be unmarried the older they get, and this predicts greater unhappiness (think of those social connections). But the five things I've listed above are things we can do something about. Here are some things we can do to be happier:

  1. Work to change the institutions around you. Some workplaces and husbands have changed, but few have changed enough to make it possible for a woman to raise happy and well-adjusted children while working full-time while also feeling quite happy themselves.
  2. Try to make choices that will lead to happiness habits, rather than ones that will leave you depleted and disappointed. See this posting for some suggestions.
  3. Spend time with your friends, family, and neighbors. Join groups and associations, and go to the meetings. Nothing is more important for your happiness than this.
  4. Go easy on yourself. As my father always said, "My only goal is to climb a low mountain." This is a good attitude—if your expectations are low, you won't get caught in that abundance paradox, above—and one that I think reflects a real gender discrepancy when it comes to childrearing. Men pat themselves on the back for making it to back-to-school night; women leave back-to-school night feeling guilty that they aren't the room parent, that they are only driving on one field trip, and that they aren't taking the class gecko home for winter break. All that guilt does you no good; as Robert Hillyer said, "If you are doing your best, you will not have time to worry about failure."
  5. Consciously practice gratitude: I promise, you'll be happier for it.

These trends are not trivial for the quality of our lives, or for our children's: our happiness can have a hugely positive influence on our children's.

What do you think? Are you sadder than your mother and her peers? If so, why do you think that might be? If not, how are you bucking the trend?

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Selected references:

Plagnol, Anke, and Richard Easterlin. "Aspirations, Attainments, and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences between American Women and Men." GeNet Workign Paper No. 32 (2008).

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004.

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." University of Pennsylvania, 2009.

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I think that at this point in my life I’m a great deal happier than my mother.  The most important thing is that I have totally made peace with the fact that I can’t do it all, all at once.  I completely recognize and take responsibility for the choice I made to have children and then to stay home and raise them; I did that knowing what it would do to my career, for example, and decided that for these years, my kids were more important to me. My mother, a first-wave type of feminist, has never accepted any of these things.  She went to school full-time and then worked full-time to support us after my dad left (she did both of those at the same time) and the cost was that she never spent much time with me when I was young and when she did, she usually wasn’t all that alert 〈from lack of sleep〉.  She still thinks she should have been able to have the great relationship with me that she claims she always wanted, but those things take time, and she chose other things.
I disagree with one thing in your post:  There may still be problems with inequality in the institutions around us, for example, but I don’t think there is any change that could produce the outcome you want, i.e., that a full-time working woman could, essentially, still also be a full-time mom.  There are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week.  Part of being an adult is making decisions about how to spend that limited amount of time, and it’s a zero-sum game.  If you choose to work full time, then you will not be able to invest the same amount of time and energy into raising your kids that someone who chooses to make that her full-time job will.  Period. 
I would also quibble with the apparently constant need to change men.  It seems that this is a misery loves company scenario.  Women are unhappy, so they feel a need to pressure men to change, when men are fairly happy the way they are.  Some husbands are probably jerks who don’t spend any time with their kids or do any housework, but that is not the norm anymore.  When women find that the division of labor is out of balance in their own house, at least some of the time it is not because the man is not doing enough but because the woman is doing things that don’t really need to be done.  For example, a lot of the time women spend in child care activity is time spent shuffling the kids around from activity to activity, but this is not essential to child care.  Many women could, in fact, pare down their activity, but, again, it’s about the choices we make and how willing we are to be accountable to ourselves for those choices.

Julie | 12:16 am, October 2, 2009 | Link


Thanks for asking!  Honestly, I’m much happier than my mother specifically because I actually try to be happy, and succeed on a regular basis.  As I grew up, I watched my mother try to carry a full-time job, become politically active and manage a household in which she didn’t allow my dad to do much of anything without criticizing him.  I learned what not to do to have a happy marriage and family from her, so I guess I owe her my thanks.  I’ve learned that happiness is a choice, a conscious decision every single day to be the kind of person my child can feel happy around.  So, I make art, write, volunteer, sing out loud and skip through parking lots.  Thank you again for asking!

Pam Belding | 6:00 am, October 2, 2009 | Link


You probably have some good things to say in this post–you always do–but I am distracted by your comment “Best-selling hotty” in reference to Marcus Buckingham’s Huffington Post article.

Why was it necessary to use the word “hotty”? If you had made that comment about a woman writer, everyone would be up in arms, calling you sexist, and saying you diminished her contribution.
Not the kind of thing I’ve grown to expect from you.

wesleyjeanne | 3:48 pm, October 2, 2009 | Link


Your posts are always so interesting and I rarely have time to comment. I am definitely happier than my mother, whom I know feels she had no choices in her life. She really would NOT identify as a feminist (“feminists just want to be better than men”). Presumably readers of this blog are skewed towards being people who take steps to choose happiness.
I am aware of research that indicates that lesbian parents share parenting and house-care tasks more equitably than heterosexual parents (quelle surprise!). Also a greater proportion of same sex parents have actively chosen to become parents (rather than accidentally getting pregnant and then having to defer study/career etc). I wonder whether there has been any comparison of relative happiness of same sex parents vs heterosexual parents?

Mikhela | 7:15 pm, October 2, 2009 | Link


I don’t know if I’m happier than my Mom, but I sure am happy. Two beautiful girls, a fabulous (and sexy) husband, and a job that I love. I have stressful months (all fall semester, this year) but my family and friends get me through. We all support each other through busy times and take each other out to make sure we take some time off. Tonight, my daughters and I had our weekly “girls night” (this week, ice cream and TV). Tomorrow night I’ll get together with some friends, and Sundays are our day to visit my parents (and sisters, and nieces – girl fest, except for my dad). My husband and I talk about the important things we want to do and try to support each other in getting them done. If that’s a secret – I’m happy to share it.

Laura Lamarre Anderson | 7:47 pm, October 2, 2009 | Link


I’m a stay at home dad.  My wife works.
“Some workplaces and husbands have changed, but few have changed enough to make it possible for a woman to raise happy and well-adjusted children while working full-time while also feeling quite happy themselves.”
I think someone needs to be home with the kids frankly.  If I was a woman trying to do work full time and raise a familyand do all the things I normally want to do, I’d be unhappy too.  However, if I was a woman who’s husband stayed with the kids out of choice (mutual consent) Then maybe I wouldn’t be so stressed out and I could enjoy myself a little more.  There is no selfish right that we have to do whatever the hell we want without regards to the feelings of our families.  We all have to do things that we don’t like for the benefit of others, but that should make us happy, not sad.  Sacrifice is rewarding.
Just like some women are unhappy that they have to sacrifice for their families, some husbands are upset at the insinuation that they don’t do enough.  It’s a two way street.  Selfishness tends to make people unhappy, and that’s a societal problem in general that is not gender specific.  My wife and I communicated the things we wanted out of life to each other before we embarked on this.  Nobody had any sense of entitlement going into it.  And, we found out that our wants and desires corresponded. But, we also both make sacrifices.  That’s how life is.  No entitlements.

Keith Wilcox | 9:18 am, October 3, 2009 | Link


HI Christine!

Great post, and thank god. I was not at all happy with Marcus’ series of articles, and the huge play he took on the study as his own work. It felt really inauthentic to me, and self serving.

I loved this post, and think you stuck much closer to the research, and to the underpinnings of women’s lives.


K.H. | 7:16 pm, October 3, 2009 | Link


If you’re interested in getting political on issues of mothering or bettering the lives of families and children – check out I find it to be working towards just those issues you mentioned and not just for moms but for our families.  Peace and much happiness to all of us.

Jen | 7:35 pm, October 3, 2009 | Link


Re: wesleyjane’s comment — You couldn’t be more correct about this!  A lame attempt to evoke Buckingham’s popular appeal, but it was a mistake (how embarrassing).  Ironic on many levels–that this is a posting about feminism in many ways; because I’ve never actually even seen Marcus Buckingham…
No, it wasn’t necessary.  Please forgive me, and strike that from the record.

Christine Carter | 5:23 pm, October 6, 2009 | Link


Thank you for the correction.
Of course you are forgiven. I always admire and appreciate what you have to say, which is one reason the comment struck me as out of place.
Everyone makes mistakes. I appreciate your candor in correcting this one.

wesleyjeanne | 6:28 pm, October 6, 2009 | Link


I’m happier than my mother, because my mother made some very important decisions that meant that she did NOT perpetuate the cycle of sadness and deprivation of her mother.  My mother worked as a labor organizer until she had four children, then threw herself into raising that four and the next five (!), with plenty of sadness and anger and frustration along the way, but a deep conviction that by raising us she was doing something useful.  i think of her every day and how when i was a little smartass in school she would ask me what i had done to help other kids in the class understand what i knew.

Mickey Ellinger | 10:54 pm, October 8, 2009 | Link

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