Sunday, October 28, 2007

Happiness Is...

An article from the New York Times a few weeks ago, about a growing gap in "happiness" between men and women, caught my eye. An excerpt:
Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist working with four psychologists on the time-use research team, figures that there is a simple explanation for the difference. For a woman, time with her parents often resembles work, whether it’s helping them pay bills or plan a family gathering. “For men, it tends to be sitting on the sofa and watching football with their dad,” said Mr. Krueger, who, when not crunching data, enjoys watching the New York Giants with his father.

This intriguing — if unsettling — finding is part of a larger story: there appears to be a growing happiness gap between men and women.

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

I don't have much to say about the article itself, except that I found in generally interesting and I thought it rendered the challenges of achieving happiness a little too simplistically (not in a deeply philosophical sense, but in terms of achieving basic life goals, and as expressed through the necessary activities that men and women need to do). But the article did re-raise an interesting question that I had thought about in the past, although not much recently.

How can we measure happiness, and how can we make it useful as a way to make choices, and measure the impact of those choices? Can we make happiness a useful notion both for guiding personal decisions as well as political decisions? Or is it to subjective and ephemeral a notion?

Darren McMahon's Happiness: A History, a philosophical and historical investigation into what happiness means is an interesting launching point for this discussion, but one which I will avoid (see this brief review) except for a) recommending his book, and b) citing it as a reference for the otherwise obvious point that 'happiness' as a defining goal of human existence has been important through all of documented history, pretty much, although the relative meaning and importance of 'happiness' has not been held constant.

More recently, two attempts to measure happines, at varying degrees of quantitative precision, for use as a high-level indicator of human progress are interesting and worth checking out. I'll link only to the basic resources, and may revisit this topic in the future. But in the meantime, check out the Gross National Happiness indicator, put forth by the strange and progressive kingdom of Bhutan as an alterntive understanding of how a society is progressing, and the more economically viable Genuine Progress Indicator, created as an alternative to GNP which tries to properly value economic externalities (like environmental impacts) and 'negative' wealth (like the economic activity created by crime or ill health [think insurance company premiums increasing]). See also the World Database of Happiness, which I'm still trying to figure out, and a dense white paper from the OECD on the use of happiness as a political/policy metric of value. And perhaps another post to follow.

Photos from a Flickr search for 'happiness.' (Although you might get the impression that happiness is disproportionately the province of children...)

1 comment:

karsten said...

I read here that the NY Times does not understand statistics and there's no significant "happiness gap". Make of it what you will.