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Male Happiness on the Decline? Men Less Satisfied, Less Confident Than Ever

A widely read 2009 study described a decline in self-reported well-being among American women. Newly published research finds this trend is also true for men.

Few research papers hit a nerve like the 2009 report The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Over the past 35 years, “women’s happiness has declined both absolutely, and relative to men,” Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote in the American Economic Journal.

Some interpreted this as an indirect indictment of the feminist movement, which — the argument went — has given women more freedom but left them less content. While that was not the thesis of the paper’s authors, the notion was debated by newspaper columnists ranging from social conservative Ross Douthat to feminists such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Ellen Goodman.

Well, it turns out our deepening collective funk may not be gender-specific after all. A just-published paper by Chris Herbst of Arizona State University concludes that American men and women “experienced similar decreases in life satisfaction” between 1985 and 2005.

“Both sexes witnessed comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported physical and mental health,” he writes in the Journal of Economic Psychology. His data suggests this rising discontent holds true “regardless of gender, age, marital status and educational attainment.”

While this trend toward increased dissatisfaction has gradually become less severe, he reports it has leveled off more for females than for males. As a result, “men’s well-being in recent years has begun to fall more rapidly than that for women,” he writes.

These different results are largely a matter of using different data sets. Stevenson and Wolfers primarily used data from the General Social Survey, while Herbst uses the results of the annual DDB Needham Life Style Survey. This annual survey of approximately 3,500 Americans, which focuses on consumer habits, “also contains a large number of items on subjective well-being, ranging from life satisfaction and self-confidence to various measures of physical and mental health,” he notes.

Where the GSS survey asks participants their level of happiness, the Life Style Survey focuses on satisfaction. Specifically, participants responded to the statement “I am very satisfied with the way things are going in my life these days” on a scale of one (definitely disagree) to six (definitely agree).

“Women do not consistently report higher levels of subjective well-being than men,” Herbst writes. “It also appears that men and women experienced similar declines in well-being over the last two decades. Average life satisfaction levels for men and women are indistinguishable in both 1985 (male average 4.16 out of 6, female average 4.15) and 2005 (male and female average both 3.99).

“Interestingly, it appears that most of the slippage in life satisfaction occurred between 1985 and the early 1990s, followed by a considerable rebound that ended in the early 2000s,” he adds. “Such results suggest that macro-economic conditions play an important role in shaping subjective well-being.”

Herbst refined the data by looking at various subgroups, in such categories as age, race, marital status and employment status. He found consistent declines in life satisfaction for each such group, with one exception: black men, “who experienced a statistically significant increase in well-being between 1985 and 2005.”

Though he has no definitive answers, Herbst offers some possible reasons why the data from this survey differ from that used by the earlier researchers. He doubts that the different wording (“happiness” versus “satisfaction”) could account for the difference, but notes that the different way the data was collected — face-to-face for the GSS survey versus by mail for the Life Style Survey he used — may provide part of the answer.

Wolfers and Stevenson, the authors of the 2009 study, welcomed this new information. “Unfortunately, data on happiness are scarce,” they wrote in an email. “Thus we are all forced to draw inferences from whatever imperfect data are out there. We find it interesting that different surveys yield somewhat different findings.”

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