Happiness, happiness….

A ‘World Happiness Report’ sounds rather implausible;  or Orwellian.  But it exists, and has been put together by some top-flight authors – John Helliwell from Canada, Richard Layard from the UK and Jeffrey Sachs of the US.  Even if I disagree with the ‘happiness’ title, it’s a big step towards measuring things that are important for our quality of life. (The authors admit the label is there for marketing purposes – ‘wellbeing’ would be far preferable in my view.)

The WHR focuses on six determinants of happiness/wellbeing:  income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, absence of corruption and generosity/giving.  Much of the report is unsurprising in itself – there’s a big gap between rich and poor countries, the Scandinavians come out very well and so on.  But it’s a powerful mapping of the position, and one that will gain momentum as it continues.

On gender there are, again, few really remarkable results.  On the whole, women evaluate their lives slightly more positively than men.  What I looked for, of course, was how this might relate to their experience at work.  I came across this (p68):

“In many countries, increased levels of educational attainment and changing gender role attitudes have allowed women to embrace professions once the prerogative of men. This may have made their lives more interesting and financially rewarding, and it may have allowed women to feel more useful to others and society…..On the other hand, work in the marketplace may have led to more pressure from competition, more stress, and more worry or guilt regarding their traditional female responsibilities. Indeed, [the] incidence of stress is higher among both men and women of working age.  In addition, some women may have experienced discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The report goes on:

” Researchers have investigated changes over time in happiness in the United States from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, a time period that saw a substantial increase in female labor force participation. They found a reversal in the female advantage in happiness, which they argue is paradoxical.   But it is possible, given the uneven rewards of many jobs, in terms of the six key variables explaining life evaluations, that many women who are now engaging in market work do not experience higher overall quality of life compared to women who choose instead to become homemakers. With the exception of highly educated women who likely enter “careers” rather than “jobs,” that seems consistent with our evidence.”

Education enables women to enter white-collar work and this is likely to make them evaluate their lives more positively.  But here is then a ‘sag’, as the work they get does not contribute much if at all to their wellbeing (and brings with it negative features such as stress).  Only for the highly educated is there a further upturn.  So the next step is to track these very broad trends, and see whether a better matching between their education and their work brings an upturn for the majority.  Another argument for focussing on all those levels below the  glass ceiling.

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