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Why Are Women Far Less Happy Today than They Were in the 70s?



Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 10/10/14

Surprisingly, the answers may be found in "Allure" and "Glamour"

I’m not sure how it happened but somehow I started receiving "Allure" magazine in the mail. I have no idea if I accidentally clicked a link or if it was some kind of anonymous gift subscription. In any case, other reading on my nightstand includes "Early Dominicans: Selected Writings by Simon Tugwell, O.P.," "Handmaid of the Lord," by Adrienne Von Speyr, Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein," a late summer issue of "The Economist," and "Thinking, Fast and Slow," by Daniel Kahneman. I could go on (the pile is pretty high) but suffice it to say I don’t normally traffic in beauty magazines.  

The October 2014 issue contains the apparently much-anticipated Best of Beauty award winners in various categories – “every last lipstick, BB cream, and hairbrush winner.” While this was a very exciting read – and I assure you I learned a great deal – I was particularly struck by the headline for the cover story on supermodel Cara Delevingne: "Life is one big party and you’re all invited."  

Really, I thought? This is amazing, because I have never been invited to a party with any super model. What could they mean? So I flipped to the article to find out. The answer? “Delevingne doesn’t care how she looks, doesn’t hold back on Instagram, and certainly doesn’t play by the rules.”  

Now this is absurd, and probably even the "Allure" editors don’t believe their readers ought to adopt this attitude as a way of life. However, images matter, and the mere presentation of an imaginary life where we abandon rules and common sense does its own little bit of damage in its own way – describing a mythical ideal of the good life that couldn’t be farther from what is truly fulfilling to human life.

But the piece is also a particularly sorry example of cultural elites telling lies about reality that are profoundly unhelpful to ordinary women. What do I mean, telling lies? Here’s what I mean. In 2009, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published an intriguing article called The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness in which they document a pervasive, downward shift in female self-reports of happiness since the early 1970s. This shift has occurred "absolutely" – meaning, women report being less happy today than they did in the early 70s. It has also occurred "relative" to men – as in, women today report being less happy than men do, whereas in the early 70s men reported being relatively unhappier than women. These are major population-based findings – results that summarize statistics from large random samples of people. Further, these findings appear to be consistent across all of the available survey data that can measure changes over time in how people report that they are doing. Which means these aren’t accidental findings. They are probably measuring something real.

Women really are – or at least they really feel that they are – doing worse today than they were in the early 70s. 

If this is true, the "Allure" cover headline “Life is one big party, and you’re all invited” seems either insensitive or ignorant. Or else, as I suspect, the editors at "Allure" don’t want to tell the truth about reality, because the truth about reality doesn’t sell magazines. This is why they persist with the Photoshop madness and the airbrush fantasyland –because we have a stubborn attachment to mythological narratives, both sacred and profane. "Glamour" and "Allure" peddle in the profane.  

But this is profoundly unhelpful to ordinary women, for at least two reasons. First, because profane mythologies – about becoming like Cara Delevingne – do little more than highlight and reinforce our fallen human nature: pride, vanity, narcissism, jealousy, sensuality – the quest for perfectibility in the material realm. Ultimately this leads to despair because we really can’t have any of it. And as we flip through the pages we risk becoming sadder than when we started. We looked for hope and inspiration but we found instead that we were becoming a statistic: far less likely than before to say that we were happy.  

And this is the second reason why profane mythologies are so unhelpful – because they displace the sacred stories that can actually provide hope and inspiration: the lives of the saints and holy men and women. We can think of these stories as mythologies because they highlight and reinforce the heights to which human nature can aspire with the help of God’s grace. Better than the Catechism, the lives of the saints offer a vivid explanation for the meaning of our existence and the path to human fulfillment. As Pope Benedict put it, “I did once say that to me art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith. The arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere. On the other hand, if we look at the Saints, this great luminous trail on which God passed through history, we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.” (Meeting with Clergy, Bressanone, 2008)

Of course I do not know whether the culture of profane mythologies is actually a source of declining female happiness. But it is reasonable to suppose it is not helping. If, in fact, declining female happiness is linked to larger changes in the way we live now – such as patterns of marriage, family formation, religious practice, education and work – then what is needed is to know with certainty that not everyone has lived the way we live now.

Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010).  She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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