Nowadays men are apparently happier, on average, than women, claims a piece in the New York Times. This claim of a ‘happiness gap’ comes from evidence finding that in the last 35 years women’s subjective well-being has been in decline, despite the objective improvement in women’s lives over that time. In the 1970s women’s subjective wellbeing was higher than men, now the reverse is true.
There’s no doubt it’s an eye-catching trend, which is exactly why it is being reported in the Times. But, says Mark Lieberman at the Language Log, this just another example of making too much of a small differences:
“The way he tells us about this “growing happiness gap” is a lovely example of scientific research as moral fable. And his story is also an especially clear case of a key method in this transformation: turning small differences in group distributions into categorical statements about group properties.”
Not only is the small gap blown out of all proportion, but there might also be no gap to explode. In a follow-up post Mark explains there was no statistically significant difference between men and women’s happiness at either ends of the study’s range (1972-2006). The only way to detect any difference at all is to aggregate the data using a statistical technique called ‘ordered probit’, and even then it’s still a minute difference.
Men are from Mars…
Perhaps by now you’re nodding sagely at yet another tale of media distortion. While it is certainly that, it is also yet another manifestation of our collective fascination with the difference between the sexes. This obsession is partly fuelled by a hidden paradox in how men and women are popularly represented and understood.
Women are striving towards equality with men in modern affluent societies, and have been for hundreds of years. In better developed parts of the world, the rhetoric of equality is now firmly in place. Men and women are equal and they must act and be treated equally.
Being ‘equal’, of course, doesn’t mean being ‘the same’, but perhaps we forget that. Indeed, maybe the more we profess equality, the more fascinated we become with our differences. This story on the happiness gap between the sexes was the second most emailed on the NYT site on the day it was published. The NYT blog was flooded with comments on the subject.
This is just one example, but there are many more. Glance at the popular psychology shelves of a local book stores. They are packed with books claiming to ‘explain’ the opposite sex to us. What exactly are these differences they are explaining?
Well, from a psychobiological perspective, there is little to choose between men and women, but from a cultural perspective, the differences are sometimes huge. So it must be these cultural differences by which we are fascinated, right?
The thing about ‘culture’ is that it feeds directly on itself – there is no fountainhead, no place where culture comes from. This is important because it means that every time a newspaper article is written or a TV program is made emphasising sex differences, it is not only trying to describe a phenomenon it is also affecting it. So, the NYT article is not only claiming to describe a happiness gap between the sexes, it is also creating it. Luckily we don’t all believe everything we read in the newspapers.
But obviously the newspapers, along with other media, have a huge incentive to pump out articles on things that fascinate us. So, as long as we struggle with our views of our own sex and the opposite, we will continue to see reflections of this struggle in our culture. And so the cycle continues.
Published: 28 September 2007