Bryan Caplan  

Wolfers, Ehrenreich, Misery, and Feminism

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As a loss-leader for her new book against positive thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich is lashing out at Stevenson and Wolfers' work on declining female happiness.  Wolfers responds here

Some remarkable features of the Ehrenreich-Wolfers exchange:

1. Ehrenreich should be happy to learn that women were not brain-washed by positive thinking propaganda.  But she's not.

2. A woman as miserable as Ehrenreich should have no trouble accepting the finding that women have grown less happy.  But she manages to see Stevenson and Wolfers' work as yet another thing to be unhappy about.

3. Wolfers claims to have at one point "admired" Ehrenreich.  Puzzling.

4. Wolfers is surprised that Ehrenreich doesn't live up to the standards of academic social science.  Doubly puzzling.

5. Ehrenreich eagerly quotes Stevenson and Wolfers assurance that feminism was not the cause of declining female happiness.  But this still leaves two elephants in the room.  First, women were reasonably happy before feminism came along.  Second, feminism failed to make women any happier than they were before.  If I were a feminist, both facts would make me pretty miserable.

6. The greatest tragedy of this exchange: After Ehrenreich's assures us that Stevenson-Wolfers' research "doesn't pass the giggle test," she spends over 1200 words proving it.  Isn't the whole point of the giggle test to bypass the need for wordy argument?


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The author at Fahreunblog in a related article titled L' inutile relativismo radicale di noi dogmatici writes:
    E' stato Michel Foucault ad incarnare al meglio il pensiero relativista nel secolo scorso. Per lui la realtà era una costruzione intersoggettiva alla cui realizzazione dedicava sforzi indefessi il Potere. La battaglia contro il Potere era dunque una b [Tracked on October 19, 2009 11:39 AM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
mgunn writes:

Isn't Ehrenreich's real mistake to implicitly assume that declining happiness means women are worse off?

If people, across variations in willpower, consistently make choices that make them unhappy, then wouldn't you still say the choice made them better off?

mgunn writes:

And there are examples of this (see my post above). Having kids consistently makes couples unhappy, even over the long run, yet couples keep having kids and don't express regret when interviewed years later. Deep irrationality? Or unhappy and better off?

Hevonen writes:

I thought the very notable happiness gap between men and women started appearing in the 60s/70s with the sexual revolution? Is there a better explanation for the gap?

And if not, shouldn't these feminists be advocating a return to traditional family life?

jakeruss writes:

Saw her on the Daily Show this last week, her diatribe against positive thinking scored no points with me. I don't think positive thinking is some sort of cure all, but it's not undermining America.

This post made me laugh hard. Thank you for that Bryan!

Eric Johnson writes:

> Having kids consistently makes couples unhappy, even over the long run

I think Jason Malloy said this effect is gone after you remove single mothers - or something like that. I could be remembering wrong, but him I've never seen be wrong.

Matt Skene writes:

I don't know why anyone would be surprised that feminism lead to less happiness. People are unhappy when they fail to live up to expectations, and feminism lead to higher expectations for women.

Bryan, I'm not sure why you think this should make feminists unhappy. The aim of feminism wasn't happiness, it was freedom and equality in society. Obtaining these things carries with it responsibilities and challenges that make life harder. Feminists should take the decline in happiness as an indication that they're succeeding. We should all take the fact that this is a good thing as a reminder that there are more important things in life than how happy you are.

SydB writes:

"Isn't the whole point of the giggle test to bypass the need for wordy argument?"

Not sure about that. The giggle test, laugh test, or smell test indicates that something is bad, but it is still incumbent on one to define why.

In autoshop in high school, Mr Mosher taught us the shove test. Before jacking the car all the way up, get the tire a bit off the ground, then give the car a good strong shove with one's hips to see if it is stable. Then finish jacking up. But if the car falls after the shove test, one still should analyze why it fell. What went wrong.

Ehrenreich says the research doesn't pass the shove test, then tells us why. Doesn't seem like an enormous tragedy to me.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

IMO, it's not so much the fact that there are more unhappy women, as there are more women who now feel free to exress the fact that they're unhappy.

I would think that being able to admit that one is unhappy would provide some relief and in some instances lead to resolution of the problem, which might explain the decline in the suicide rate for women.

As for the suicide rate among men remaining the same...I don't think that men have as yet reached the point where they feel that they can admit to being unhappy. Instead, they frequently engage in behaviors that would indicate they are unhappy; but that is not the same as being able to admit that one is unhappy.

Why is it that men don't express their unhappiness? Again, IMO, I think that for as much as a lot of women feel they've "come a long way baby", they still expect their husbands to be the Rock of Gibralter and keep everything bottled up so as not to demonstrate weakness.

Jessi Stewart writes:

Women have always been trying to branch out and see things for themselves. It has become apparent that the world needs to decide whether their opinion is wrong or right . Their happiness has been the basis for these discoveries, and if men haven't noticed yet, women complain when they are unhappy.

Feminism is a touchy subject because sometimes a woman can be completely obsessed with the topic but most often they are not. The women that get the most negative attention are the ones who express how dissatisfied they are with the current system. Yes, the Declaration of Independence made all MEN free of tyranny, it did not however make women the slaves of men and remove their status to make them slaves.

As for the comment that "After Ehrenreich's assures us that Stevenson-Wolfers' research "doesn't pass the giggle test," she spends over 1200 words proving it." How else would we like her to demonstrate her point. If Enrenreich had 1200 words of research to demonstrate her argument, all the more power to her, it's much more concise than 1200 pages.

And why would it make women HAPPIER to know that we haven't been brainwashed by propaganda. That just brings more questions to the table, like, Who is trying to brainwash us, and why do we need to be? If men wanted us to go back to the way things were where women were trophy wives and show girls the play 'A Dolls House' would not have been written. Times have changed and women cannot stay left behind in the past.

frankcross writes:

I'm a little skeptical of these happiness studies. Revealed preferences seem more reliable than expressed preferences. If women choose to be "feminist" I would trust that's in their interest, regardless of reported happiness.

I would guess that happiness is benchmarked against expectations. Pre-feminist women had settled and lower expectations that could be more readily met and hence reported higher happiness

EdV writes:

Having grown up in the early 60s I can cite numerous instances of women being "unhappy" due to being abused and watching their children be abused. My own mother was threatened with a marriage annulment and institutionalization if she sought a divorce for my father's rapes and beatings of the kids.

We were not alone.

Feminism may not be the be all and end all of how to live better but certainly is a step in the right direction.

To some degree the U.S. real estate market was improved by the increase in divorce which led to increased demand in housing. So before you go knocking feminism consider your real estate investments.

Russell Nelson writes:

I think Barbara should explore life from inside the burqua next. For a women who specializes in being miserable, I think she's suffer the most exquisite misery. Multiculturalism collides with feminism.

GabbyD writes:

why do you think she's miserable?

Great post, Dr. Caplan. It really brightened my day to see someone rip Ehrenreich to shreds. I hated reading her former book and then listening to my liberal professor's diatribes on it in my college History of Poverty course. Keep it up!

Lauren writes:

Hi, J. Daniel Wright. You said:

I hated reading her former book and then listening to my liberal professor's diatribes on it in my college History of Poverty course

Why did you hate the book? What didn't you like about your teacher's comments on it?

Peter Thoenen writes:

"The aim of feminism wasn't happiness, it was freedom and equality in society. Obtaining these things carries with it responsibilities and challenges that make life harder. Feminists should take the decline in happiness as an indication that they're succeeding. We should all take the fact that this is a good thing as a reminder that there are more important things in life than how happy you are."

I'm not sure I can even understand this and I am hoping you are being tongue-in-cheek as oppose to serious. If not though are you saying that it's a good thing for women that feminist has brought equality to the unhappiness world and that unhappiness is no longer dominated by men? I mean I definitely agree with you that I think feminism should bring equality in all things (primarily prison sentences, forced labor, and child custody/support) but for spite reasons, not because I truly think its a good thing for women which you seem to state.

I also have a hard time believing you are advocated unhappiness as not being the most important thing in life. I mean plenty of us put up with short or medium term unhappiness with the goal of long term happiness but I don't think ANY of us are grinding away, by choice, being intentionally unhappy towards the goal of continuing to be unhappy forever.

Bill Drissel writes:

I've often wondered how much unhappiness comes from women emulating the lives of unhappy women who have some kind of convincing rationale. Rather I think, they should look at the result. You wouldn't want to take golf lessons from a teacher who held the clubhead in his hands.

Bill Drissel

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