Is happiness a woman ?

BLIToday’s post is by Gaël Brulé, PhD student at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Scientific Director of Spinoza Factory

Is happiness a woman ? That is at least what Nietzsche wrote in Thus spoke Zarathustra, a philosophical poem in which Zarathustra (the Persian name of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, an old Iranian religious philosophy) ironically says “Happiness runs after me, because I do not run after women. Happiness is the woman itself”.

This may seem a bit opaque, especially when you know the complicated relationship Nietzsche had with women, but nonetheless it is interesting to observe that in the scientific literature, the vast majority of happiness studies seem to indicate that women are happier than men, even if recent studies show that this gap in gender happiness has eroded in the last decades. They are happier married, happier when single, at work and pretty much throughout their life; only retired and divorced men seem slightly happier than their feminine counterparts.

If the results seem to go pretty much all in the same direction, it is thus legitimate and interesting to wonder why this is the case and, going a bit further, to see if we can give happiness a sex or a gender. Let’s see if values can shed light on this difference in happiness. Sociologist Geert Hofstede has defined a range of indicators to compare cultures in countries according to several criteria, such as power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity /femininity values. Arrindell and Veenhoven have shown that feminine values are more conducive to happiness than masculine values.

Hofstede defined the masculine values as linked to action, hierarchy, duty, power and nationalism, whereas feminine values encompass collaboration, intuition, community and egalitarianism. These criteria are very commonly used and at the same regularly criticized. The way they are measured can, indeed, be seen as ethnocentric with western criteria. The way the indicators are built can easily be questioned and the fact that they can overshadow local differences has been highlighted.

Furthermore, the actual labeling of the indexes might be debated and in particular the masculine/feminine one. Unless it is proven otherwise, these values seem mostly socially constructed, not “natural”, but these labels seem to indicate that there is something natural in the values attributed to men and women. As Georges Orwell famously wrote in his book 1984, ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’. Therefore, it might be relevant to change the labels of the two sets of values: the “feminine” cohesive values might be called horizontal values whereas the differentiating, comparative, “masculine” values could be seen as vertical values. After this semantic reflection, let’s explore what these values can reveal in terms of happiness.

The scientific literature shows that too much hierarchy isn’t a good basis for happiness to flourish. Too much competition has also been shown to hinder happiness, whereas the positive effects of collaboration on happiness have largely been proved. The “masculine” values are also linked to external values such as social status and materialism, which are negatively correlated with happiness (money is positively correlated with happiness, up to a point, but actively seeking it is not). The “feminine” societal matrix seems, therefore, a more fertile ground for happiness than the masculine one. Thus, the difference in happiness between the two sexes might be due to a difference in happiness between genders.

A macro-study shows a particularly revealing view: when comparing the countries on Hofstede’s male/female scale, one realizes that all the happiest countries are those whose structure is the most horizontal (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland), while countries endorsing vertical, “masculine” values (for instance Japan) are typically much lower in terms of happiness.

At first sight, men seem to largely benefit from a system that has been built by the patriarchate. Men are overrepresented in big companies, governments, prestigious positions. Iin brief, they largely occupy practically every high position and keep the key positions of the current economic system. Then how could men be less happy than women? Would men be the first victims of a system created by the patriarchate? One could wonder. Indeed, for instance, the very DNA of capitalism is largely anchored in “masculine” values: maximization of profits, struggle for prestige, competition.

By strictly separating gender roles – production roles for men, support roles for women – on top of keeping women away from the highest positions, has the patriarchate forced men to endorse values that handicap them in terms of happiness? It seems so. At a micro level, structures that leave the most space for women see not only their level of happiness rising, but also men’s level of happiness. From a certain “masculine” (as socially constructed) point of view, happiness is a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation. From a “feminine” point of view it is rather an expansive resource that can increase when shared.

This could encourage people who are afraid of gender studies to follow the path of leveling differences between genders. Down the path, more happiness for men and women. Letting go of the framework of the past can be hard and might hurt, but gentlemen, let us express our feminine side, it’s probably the best way towards happiness, for women, for us, for society.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

OECD work on gender


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