Thursday, September 27, 2007

Are Boys Happier than Girls?

Yesterday's New York Times article He's Happier, She's Less So included a recap of studies on the difference between men and women's reported happiness from the 70's onward and includes an update of new studies. The whole article is worth the read, and I hope stirs up some good debate/analysis elsewhere, but here's a nugget that stands out for me where girls are concerned:

It’s telling that there is also a happiness gap between boys and girls in high school. As life has generally gotten better over the last generation — less crime, longer-living grandparents and much cooler gadgets — male high school seniors have gotten happier. About 25 percent say they are very satisfied with their lives, up from 16 percent in 1976. Roughly 22 percent of senior girls now give that answer, unchanged from the 1970s.

Hmmmm. One theory presented in the article is an increase in expectations for girls, in terms of grades, activities, and aspirations, while still feeling the pressure to meet unrealistic standards of beauty. The general idea is that girls were once just expected to be hot, now they are expected to be smart, ambitious, and hot at the same time.

This theory has been backed up by some research (see Girls Inc) and certainly makes sense for a certain percentage of high school girls, but doesn't go far enough. (I've been a part of many discussions about whether this applies across race and class lines) Like many topics that address the gender divide, it ignores the boys and men. Do boys and men not face the pressures and expectations around grades, activities, and how they look? Seen an Axe commerical lately? Impossible standards of masculinity are as present in our culture as femininity and it seems to follow that boys feel those pressures too.

Appearances are one thing, expectations around academics and performance are another. If boys don't feel the pressure around their futures, why is that? Is the good 'ol boys network so apparent that high school boys don't feel the need to get their act together?

My point here is that if we are seeing some kind of reversal in happiness trends between girls and boys, we should think critically about why that might be.

Thoughts? Guesses?


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Amanda W said...

As a mom of young boys, I was in an ice hockey locker room when the group of 6 boys, aged 6-12 years, were discussing whether it is better to be a boy or girl. I listened with dreaded anticipation.

The answer they came up with? Girl.

Their reasons? Girls get to dress how they like-"whatever color they want" without being judged, they get to play all the same sports as boys, and -- hear this-- they get to cry in public. And they don't get made fun of for it.

Boys feel tremendous pressure to fit in to a way of being that is highly restrictive: express only certain emotions, look certain ways, etc. It is no different.

What is different is the ways that males and females respond to it and how and when they express it. We are not created the same.

I don't see this as boys are getting happier while girls are getting less happy. I see it as an indication that maybe we have brought the boys up to about where the girls are through awareness and openness as a society. I don't think that it is good enough for either group.

Life is full of pain and struggle in the best of circumstances. It is only the pursuit of happiness that we offer...

Love your blog, Patti, keep up the good work.