The Happiness Gap (the spread of a minsinterpretation meme)

I am not too happy about the way wild conclusions drawn from this self-published research periodically pop up in the media. Kudos to Liberman, from Language Log, who tries (yet again) to explain.

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

The best way to describe this, I think, would be to say something like:

In the early 70s, women self-reported
their happiness at levels somewhat higher than men did. Specifically,
5.1% more of the women reported themselves “Very happy”, while 1.5%
fewer reported themselves “Not too happy”.

30-odd years later, in the mid 00s,
women’s self-reported happiness was closer to men’s, though it was
still slightly higher. 1.4% more of the women reported themselves “Very
happy”, while 0.1% fewer reported themselves “Not too happy”.

To Arianna Huffington, this means that “women are becoming more and
more unhappy”, while “men … have gotten progressively happier over the
years”. To Maureen Dowd, this means that “Before the ’70s, there was a
gender gap in America in which women felt greater well-being. Now
there’s a gender gap in which men feel better about their lives.”  Ross
Douthat described these numbers with the generalization “In
postfeminist America, men are happier than women.”

All of these statements are either false or seriously misleading.  Maybe, if you look at the data through a sophisticated statistical model,
you can support a conclusion about the relative signs of the
long-term-trends for males and females.  But any way you slice and dice
it, there’s not much there there.

I’ve cited the earlier stages in this discussion as motivation for a moratorium on using generic plurals to describe small statistical differences.  The contributions of Arianna Huffington and Maureen Dowd are, if anything, even better arguments for this (hopeless) cause. —Mark Liberman, Language Log

2 thoughts on “The Happiness Gap (the spread of a minsinterpretation meme)

  1. This ‘non-equivalence between self-reported states and actual states’ is visible by observing Figure 7: US Suicide Rates, by Gender, of the ‘Paradox of declining Female Happiness’ report.
    The female-to-male ratio of suicide over the years show trends, but those trends appear irrelevant compared to the average numbers of suicides: roughly 20 male suicides versus 5 female suicides per 100,000.
    In view of these numbers, which represent actual states, the self-reported states (are you happy?) may in fact represent a trend in men to be less honest about their own happiness in order to hide a self-perceived weakness, or to delude themselves more about their own happiness. In other words, the gender gap about happiness can also be interpreted as a social and psychological problem in men and not necessarily in women.

  2. And data like this probably says as much about cultural effects on confirmation bias. For instance, the stigma associated with admitting mental illness has declined somewhat since the 1970s; women are more likely to suffer from depression than men; if depression-reporting rates increased uniformly, it’d look as if women were becoming unhappier relative to men. The non-equivalence between self-reported states and actual states is routinely ignored by commentators.

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