The Sadness of Stay-at-Home Moms


Stay-at-home moms fare worse than employed moms at every income level in terms of sadness, anger, and depression. On the other items Gallup measures — laughter, enjoyment, happiness, worry, stress, learning something interesting, and having a high life evaluation rating — middle- and high-income stay-at-home moms for the most part do as well as employed moms.

However, low-income stay-at-home moms do worse on all of these items than their employed counterparts. These moms — with annual household incomes of less than $36,000 — are less likely than employed moms at this income level to say they smiled or laughed a lot or experienced happiness or enjoyment “yesterday.” They are also slightly less likely to say they learned something interesting.

via Stay-at-Home Moms Report More Depression, Sadness, Anger.

The Value of Savings

Riffing off my response to Chait, Free Exchange’s Washington-based blogger writes:

Suppose you made a million dollars and you put all but $50,000 of it in a shoebox. Now suppose that you never lose the box, never spend it, and leave it all to the dog when you die. What good did the $950,000 do you? If one derives pleasure from imagining consumption possibilities but never actually consumes anything, does that count as value derived from consumption? What if the wealth is public knowledge, and it generates an attitude of deference among those who respect the wealthy or hope to profit from association with them? What about the value of security? Does the presence of a large, cash barrier between you and financial disaster count as a gain derived from consumption (given that the barrier represents the ability to consume post-disaster)?

I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism of Mr Wilkinson, I’m just wondering to what extent it is true. How much do people enjoy having money just because they enjoy having money?

I’ve been thinking about this a good deal. One way to look at savings, as Free Exchange suggests, is to see it as just another kind of consumption. This would help make sense of misers who compulsively hoard. When you get a dollar, you can exchange it for something else to consume or keep it and consume the utility of having a dollar over and over and over. I suppose one might say that differences in savings at the same level of income reveals a difference in time preference or risk aversion or estimates of lifetime income or money fetishism or a mix of these. (How hard is it to tell which it is?)

I think all this makes sense, but it’s not very helpful. You can’t eat dollars, live in them, get an education or much entertainment from them, etc. I think the insurance value of savings is really significant. How do we estimate it? Measure the difference in concentration of stress hormones at different savings levels? I also thing that the status value of savings can be significant, too. But this seems likely to be lower than the status value of effectively signaling wealth, which is just as likely to correspond to huge debt.

I’d guess there’s a great deal of variety in peoples’ attitudes toward savings and debt. Both sides of the ledger are morally valenced for many people. I’m a weirdo who reads too much economics, so I see my accumulated human capital as serving much of the insurance function of money savings. So, despite the fact that I remain a net debtor in money terms (student loans!), I feel well in the black. Some people are ashamed of debt, because it’s debt, and hasten to wipe it out. Others act like credit is free money and run up debt until it explodes in their face. Then they go bankrupt. And then, later, they do it again. Some Spockish types will make minimum payments on debt indefinitely, as long as the interest rate on the debt is lower than the interest rate on investment or the value of present consumption. Some people require a cushion of savings for minimal peace of mind. Others are happy as long as their checking account doesn’t dip below zero before the next paycheck. Etc. So I think it’s probably hard to draw a really useful generalization about the intrinsic utility and disutility of savings and debt.

Since it remains that most savings is intended to finance future consumption (my account with the largest positive balance is a 401K retirement savings account, and I’d bet that’s pretty typical), it seems best to keep the concepts of savings and consumption separate for analytical purposes — even if some of the value flows of savings seems a bit like the value of consumption; even if some forms of consumption have, in addition to the direct value of consumption to the consumer, savings-like value. Here I’m thinking of money spent improving a skill that is fun but pays, or money spent on capital goods that are also a source of enjoyment, like my computer here, or money spent on assembling a meaningful collection that appreciates in real market value. It’s complicated! I think it’s enough to say that the value of consumption isn’t the only source of value in life, and that the value of consumption isn’t even the only source of economic value in life. Nevertheless, real lifetime consumption remains far and away the best proxy for lifetime economic welfare.

The Poor but Unusually Chipper and Long-Lived Index

The Happy Planet Index is an ideologically rigged ranking released each year by the New Economics Foundation as part of their fight against the evils of economic growth. As far as I can tell, the whole thing is based on the false assumption that it is physically impossible for the entire population of Earth to achieve OECD-levels of material wealth. I suspect NEF sort of hopes media outlets will misunderstand what their index is an index of, as they’ve chosen a rather misleading name for a ranking of countries according to this formula:

Nevertheless, here are some of the headlines:

Australia Not Home to the Good Life — Sydney Morning Herald
Costa Rica: World’s happiest place — Xinhua
Happy Costa Ricans top global list for the good life — Financial Times
Costa Rica tops list of ‘happiest’ nations — CNN

I do like the quotes around CNN’s ‘happiest’. So, anyway, what is the Happy Planet Index and index of?! Who can say!? Not journalists, who can be counted on to read no further than the press release. If one takes a moment to poke around the website for the Index, they do get around to saying: “The Index doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world,” which is a help. But they should put this up front, or change the name of the damn thing.

Anyway, so what’s this “ecological footprint”?

The ecological footprint of an individual is a measure of the amount of land required to provide for all their resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land required to sequester (absorb) all their CO2 emissions and the CO2 emissions embodied in the products they consume. This figure is expressed in units of ‘global hectares’. The advantage of this approach is that it is possible to estimate the total amount of productive hectares available on the planet. Dividing this by the world’s total population, we can calculate a global per capita figure on the basis that everyone is entitled to the same amount of the planet’s natural resources. Using the latest footprint methodology, resulting in the data in the Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint Atlas, the figure is 2.1 global hectares. This implies that a person using up to 2.1 global hectares is, in these terms at least, using their fair share of the world’s resources – one-planet living.

Don’t ask me why they think this makes sense. (Artifical trees!) In short it seems to mean that countries get docked for containing lots of people wealthy enough to buy lots of things.

Let’s move on to alpha and beta. What do they mean? NEF doesn’t tell you on the website. But if you diligently hunt around the pdf of the report, it is possible to discover Appendix 2, where it is finally revealed what the Happy Planet Index is an index of:

… a constant (α) is added to the ecological footprint to ensure that its coefficient of variance across the entire dataset matches the coefficient of variance for HLY across the dataset. In effect, this serves to dampen variation in the footprint. Once this is done, HLY can be divided by the adjusted footprint to produce an efficiency measure. This is then multiplied by a second constant (β) such that a country achieving a maximum life satisfaction score of 10, and life expectancy of 85, whilst living within its global fair share of resources (one-planet living), would score 100.

They apparently want to dampen the effect of the footprint to avoid the embarrassment of miserably impoverished countries “winning” simply due to the fact that they’ve got antibiotics but are too poor to buy coal.

It is well known in the happiness biz that Latin American countries tend to do better in terms of self-reported life satisfaction than their economic and political fundamentals would predict–in much the same way East Asian countries do worse. Given that the index strongly penalizes wealth, it’s not much of a surprise that the winner would be a poor-but-unusually-chipper Latin American country that also has a suprisingly good average lifespan.

Here is an article on Costa Rican longevity.

Here is my annoyed response to the 2006 index.

What do you make of this claim, just thrown out there in NEF’s explanation of its notion of ecological footprint: “[E]veryone is entitled to the same amount of the planet’s natural resources”?

The Happiness Gender Gap Again

Stevenson and Wolfers’ paper, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” covered in the Times back in 2007, has just been released as an NBER paper, giving it a second wind. Ross Douthat in his column today argues that it means that we need to do a better job stigmatizing single motherhood. That’s one way we could go. In my 2007 Free Exchange post on the subject, I suggested destigmatizing female indifference to familial responsibility.

[We should] strongly and repeatedly reinforce the point that women should not have to do so much of the unpleasant domestic and child- and parent-care work. It seems to me our culture remains awash in quasi-Victorian super-sentimenal romanticism about the mother-child bond, which makes women feel guilty if they approach childrearing with the same sort of genial detachment of even attentive, involved, and loving dads. Surely many men ought to do more of this work. But I think men doing more is less important than women doing less. Neither women nor men ought not be made to feel guilty if they outsource this work to daycare, nannies, or assisted-living facilities.

The happiness studies show that men now spend less time unpleasantly occupied than they used to. That’s good! Our focus should not be on the equitible distribution of unpleasantness, but on an overall reduction. The best path is cultural change that lowers to women the cost of opting out of unfair social expectations—expectations that lead them to spend too much of their time devoted to unpleasant acts of altruism.

There’s no logically logical reason why Ross’s restigmatization campaign can’t go hand in hand with my destigmatization campaign. Ladies: don’t be a single mother, because that would be bad for you, and if you are a mother, ignore your kids more, because that would be good for you! But I’m afraid there’s a kind of deep cultural logic that rules out this sort of arrangement.

Happiness and Income Inequality

Yglesias writes:

I think the links between taxation, spending, and inequality are the most plausible explanation of the fact that the highest-taxed countries are the happiest. It can’t be that paying taxes makes Danes happy. But plausibly, living in a relatively egalitarian society makes people happy.

I wrote a paper about this! At the time, the studies showed no notable systematic relationship between income inequality and happiness. (I know Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are looking at the question again with the bigger, better Gallup survey, so maybe they’ll offer a somewhat differnet, more accurate picture.) Danes say they’re really happy and have the lowest inequality. But Americans are nearly as happy and have high inequality for an OECD country. Mexicans are a quite upbeat lot, but have really, really high income inequality. So there’s not much of a clear pattern in the data. The effect of inequality on happiness appears to be pretty strongly ideologically mediated. Unsurprisingly, high inequality tends to be disquieting to egalitarians. But it doesn’t so much bother meritocrats. Additionally, the causes of high inequality are various. Economic predation by political elites (lots of Latin America and Africa) is pretty likely to create a sense of victimization and injustice. But high levels of wealth creation in more or less fair institutions but with relatively little fiscal redistribution (the U.S.) doesn’t bother people as long as they think the system is more or less fair. So the national income inequality variable itself tends to have little or no independent effect. The effect it does have depends on other things people believe and care about and the specific causes of inequality in different places. Anyway, why would you expect nation-level income inequality to figure much into an individual’s assessment of life satisfaction? People don’t experience national Gini coefficients. They worry about their neighbor’s car.

The Complexity of Happiness

Joshua Wolf Stenk’s Atlantic essay on George Vaillant and the Harvard Study of Adult Development is terrific. There’s lots to say about it (e.g., Why don’t we have more longitudinal studies like this? How representative are a bunch of Greatest Generation Harvardian men, really? etc.) But I just wanted to highlight this bit on Valliant’s take on current happiness research.

Last October, I watched him give a lecture to [positive psychology guru Martin] Seligman’s graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.


When Vaillant told me he was going to speak to Seligman’s class, he said his message would be from William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine.” Earlier in his career, he would use such occasions to demonstrate, with stories and data, the bright side of pain—how adaptations can allow us to turn dross into gold. Now he articulates the dark side of pleasure and connection—or, at least, the way that our most profound yearnings can arise from our most basic fears.

There’s a lot of good stuff on happiness research in the ellipsis, but I just wanted to draw out this main point. The essay is full of fascinating illustrations of the point from the lives of the men the Harvard study has followed.

Also extremely important:

“It is social aptitude,” [Vaillant] writes, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger. In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

What I liked so much about this essay, and about Vaillant, is the recognition that the complexity of human psychology, the complexity of coping and adapting to the challenges life throws up, makes relationships or “social aptitude” no simple thing. Vaillant points out that even the most “mature” strategies for adapting to disappointment, injury, or failure can strain our most intimate, sustaining relationships. And the reality of relationships over time tends to call for defenses that can threaten relationships. A positive, outgoing person may love freely and easily, but then become shattered by betrayal. Then what do you do? Steel yourself for the possibility of future pain by keeping some part of yourself private and out of the way? But then what have you done to your capacity to be nourished by intimacy and love? A lifetime of  rich relationships is not easy and therefore neither is the best kind of life.

Reasons to Have Zero Kids

The first one hits marital satisfaction hard

An eight-year study of 218 couples found 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born.

“Couples who do not have children also show diminished marital quality over time,” says Scott Stanley, research professor of psychology at University of Denver. “However, having a baby accelerates the deterioration, especially seen during periods of adjustment right after the birth of a child.”

Parents are more likely to be depressed than non-parents.

A new study shows that raising [children] is a lifelong challenge to your mental health.

Not only do parents have significantly higher levels of depression than adults who do not have children, the problem gets worse when the kids move out.

“Parents have more to worry about than other people do—that’s the bottom line,” said Florida State University professor Robin Simon. “And that worry does not diminish over time. Parents worry about their kids’ emotional, social, physical and economic well-being. We worry about how they’re getting along in the world.”


“People should really think about whether they want to do this or not,” Simon said of parenting.

Neither study summary mentions the effect of having two children compared to one, or three compared to two, etc. It may be that once you’ve taken that big first step toward depression and marital dissatisfaction, the extra kid doesn’t make things any worse. But if I were Bryan I’d be sure to track down this data and check it out. 

[NB: I still want kids!]

The Meaning Dodge

E.D. Kain on the fact that kids don’t tend to make us measurably happier:

The happiness we experience from our children is lasting, constant, omnipresent, and far deeper than any material gain.  It is also hard, and frustrating, and the most tiring experience of my life, which makes it all that much more meaningful. 


Fact is, you can’t break this sort of thing down into a nice, scientific study.  It’s not so simply quantified.

It is not simply quantified. But perhaps it is quantifiable. So we should try to quantify it. Fact is, one can blather about meaning any time one’s preferences or prejudices come under pressure from science. But in the end it’s mostly irrelevant whether something is quantifiable or not. There are some things some people are going to do no matter what. So that’s what I think those people should say: “I am going to do this no matter what.”

As I wrote in the ill-fated Culture11:

Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What’s so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can’t just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some of them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we’ll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.

I don’t anticipate the new field of “meaning research” will be warmly received by those with a refined taste for meaning. Many of these fine folks say that the very attempt to measure happiness scientifically — not to mention the effort to put meaning itself under the microscope — saps life of… meaning. But how do you know? Anybody can say this. You can say it while waving a copy of The Closing of the American Mind. You can say it smoking a pipe. But it doesn’t help. 

I am going to continue making this point no matter what.

United States of Happiness

Here’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time: a comparison of self-reported happiness by state.

Utah, the wholesome Beehive State, takes the prize. But that den of sin Nevada is nipping at its heels! [Mortifying map-reading lapse!] West Virginia, home of the Robert C. Byrd memorial everything, trails the field. Iowa? As we like to say, “Could be worse.” (Proximity to Missouri is a problem.)

Having worked two summers as a tour guide at Mormon historic sites teeming with families from Provo and Logan, I’ll vouch for the fact that Utahns are exceptionally chipper. Though perhaps it should be noted that some Mormons are almost ideological about the idea that they ought to be happy. (Google around for Mormon mommy blogs and enjoy all the “I’m sure glad I studied physics at BYU, but gosh nothing could POSSIBLY be more satisying than reading the same dang story to my sixth precious, precious baby for the ninety billionth time because each and every one of my perfect babies is such a blessing and there is nothing more fulfilling to me as a woman. Ted [who’s so cute I let him cheat off me in physics!] is such a good provider, and sometimes he even cooks! Most days I smile so hard it hurts because Heavenly Father has truly blessed me with the best life possible.”) So I suspect a skoche of culture-driven upward inflation. 

As one would expect, there is a positive correlation between money and happiness. This general pattern is by now so well confirmed that maybe we’ll stop hearing that there is no correlation between money and happiness in a couple decades of so.