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The Pursuit of Happyness

If you think I made a typo in the heading of this blog, I guess you haven’t seen the very enjoyable movie with this name, starring Will Smith. It’s about a medical equipment salesworker who competes, against great odds, for a position in securities sales, all the while dealing with problems of single parenthood and homelessness. We all like to believe that upward mobility is still an important part of American life, and we also like to think that upward mobility increases personal happiness.

If you think I made a typo in the heading of this blog, I guess you haven’t seen the very enjoyable movie with this name, starring Will Smith. It’s about a medical equipment salesworker who competes, against great odds, for a position in securities sales, all the while dealing with problems of single parenthood and homelessness. We all like to believe that upward mobility is still an important part of American life, and we also like to think that upward mobility increases personal happiness.

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It is often taken for granted that a good job is one that has high economic rewards, especially income. Not surprisingly, an occupation’s income is one of the factors that I weigh when I decide whether to include the occupation in a list of the “best jobs” for a book in JIST’s Best Jobs series. (The other two factors are job growth and job openings; to get any rewards from a job, you must be able to get that job.) It’s generally assumed that the more you earn, the happier you’ll be.

That’s why it’s interesting to come upon a study by two economists at the Wharton School, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who found that even as the pay gap between men and women has been declining over the past 35 years (although it’s far from disappearing), the level of happiness reported by women has also declined, to the point where women are now no happier than men.

Pay, of course, is not the only measure of the achievement gap between men and women, but other measures are also showing women’s gains: level of education, workforce participation, access to nontraditional occupations. So why are women less happy than they used to be? It’s not because they increasingly have to combine paid work with household tasks; the researchers cite studies showing that the total of these two kinds of work hours has been declining, both in absolute numbers and relative to the hours worked by men. And they found declines in female happiness for both working women and stay-at-home moms, both married and divorced women, and across the range of educational achievement.

One theory the authors cite is that women’s expectations have been raised higher than realities are delivering. Women now compare their accomplishments to men’s and recognize the extent to which they still come up short: “Women might find their relative position lower than when their reference group included only women.” Another possibility is that women’s satisfaction is being affected by some factor that has escaped public consciousness. Finally, it’s possible that there’s no difference in women’s actual happiness and that the supposed difference is caused by a defect in polling methods.

In the final analysis, the authors do not have a definitive explanation for the decline in women’s happiness, and I wouldn’t dare to posit one. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that, at the individual level, greater satisfaction with work usually leads to greater overall happiness.