Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Happiness Gap

A column by David Leonhardt in yesterday's New York Times reports on two new studies that have reached the same finding: Men today say they're happier than women do. This is the opposite of what research found in the 1970s.

Drawing on studies by Alan Krueger at Princeton University and Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania, Leonhardt offers this explanation for the gender role reversal:

Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more. Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

He notes that women aren't actually working more than they did 30 or 40 years ago; they're doing different kinds of work. They're spending more time on paid work, yet they still have most of the same responsibilities they did a generation ago: cooking, cleaning, caring for their kids and (more and more)
their parents. As Leonhardt writes,

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short. ...

[These findings] show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn't fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn't have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

Historian Stephanie Coontz makes a very similar argument in her essay in the new issue of Greater Good, which features a series of essays on "The 21st Century Family." Subscribers have received this issue and it's currently on newsstands; some articles from it will be on our website soon. You can also receive a no-risk sample copy when you start a subscription to Greater Good here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

(Same-sex) marriage and families

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders had made a point in his election campaign that he would veto any City Council resolutions backing a constitutional challenge to California's 2000 voter initiative making marriage possible only between a man and a woman. The Republican ex-cop had long said he believed civil unions were sufficient for gays, but when the resolution came to his desk, he recently had a change of heart that reflects his concerns, not only for his own family members and staff who are gay or lesbian, but also about the state of marriage in the U.S. of A.

Click here for a link to the YouTube video.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moral Intuition

The New York Times reported yesterday on some of Jonathan Haidt's work on the evolutionary roots of human morality. Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote about some of his research in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Greater Good.

The Times piece discusses Haidt's interest in "the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding--when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why."
Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

In exploring our moral intuitions, Haidt has identified five components of morality that are common to most cultures. Two--preventing harm to others and reciprocity/fairness--concern treatment of individuals. The other three promote behaviors geared toward strengthening one's group: loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity. The article goes on to explain the political dimension of some of the research Haidt has conducted with a grad student, Jesse Graham:
They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity. Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective
of individuals.

Haidt makes some pretty provocative claims about the relationship between moral intuitions and political beliefs. I'd be curious to see how he gauged people's opinions of these different moral systems. It seems to me there's a chance that liberals might actually "attach greater weight to moral systems protective of individuals," and assign less importance to group interests like respect for authority, simply because they self-identify as liberals. That is, as liberals, they know they're supposed to demonstrate a preference for individual rights and have a knee-jerk reaction against words or concepts (like "loyalty" and "authority" ) that are associated with conservatives, especially with the current administration). Real-world political allegiences might bias their responses and misrepresent these people's true moral beliefs and behaviors.

Either way, the Times piece, and Haidt's website, are worth checking out. For more on the evolutionary basis of our moral judgments, check out the work of Joshua Greene at Harvard, which I blogged about a few months back.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Winning and Losing's story on Jack Whittaker, 2002 Powerball jackpot winner, is another example of the truism that "money doesn't buy happiness." Described as "bad luck", Whittaker recounts his post-jackpot days to the AP, highlighting how his wife left him, his 17-year-old granddaughter died battling a drug addiction, and over 400 legal actions have been taken against him since he won big.

Whittaker was relatively affluent before even winning the lottery. He describes his and his family's life as "lavish", living off his prospering $17-million pipeline company. What seems to stand out in Whittaker's story, however, is the way his interactions with others have changed.

"I don't have any friends," says the multi-millionaire. "Every friend that I've had, practically, has wanted to borrow money or something and of course, once they borrow money from you, you can't be friends anymore." There was also mention on how cautious he had to be when meeting women and straying from those interested in his wallet, not him.

So Whittaker's case is unique in the sense that he seemingly had everything before striking it rich(er). According to past research, money seems to buy happiness when the individual is getting the financial boost out of poverty. For others, there seems to be no effect. Whittaker didn't need any more money for material things; his winnings instead resulted in a loss of social capital. From this particular story, we are limited to say how much of Whittaker's unfortunate outcomes can be attributed to him, but the story is telling of how impactful others can become in reacting to large sums of money. Where does one strike the balance between accumulating social versus financial capital?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Imaginary Friends

Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post at the blog Daddy Dialectic on my son's imaginary characters, in which I describe how he adopts roles that range from Frank Lloyd Wright to Spider-Man to the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend," she told me in an interview. "It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity."

Taylor's research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating--and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son's behavior and propensities. Liko--who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities--is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. (Incidentally, in the photo above, Liko is pretending to be a fireman in a real-life fire engine.) In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.

"Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person," she said. "We’ve been able to show that in our work." But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don't know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person's perspective.

Whatever triggers these qualities, it appears early in life. "Children who go on to develop imaginary friends really show an interest in fantasy from a very early age," she told me. "So even before the first year, they tend to be the kids who really like puppets and stuffed animals, rather than building blocks or things that are more reality-oriented. Those are the kids who go on at [a later age] to have imaginary friends."

One of the interesting implications of the gender difference Taylor found is that little boys appear to be more wrapped up in projecting themselves into roles of power, while girls from early on are developing characters outside themselves who demand attention and empathy. This plays to certain gender stereotypes, but her research also implies that boys and girls alike can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by developing their imaginations.

Once in place, it seems that imaginary friends can take on a life of their own, becoming characters with autonomous motivations and unique feelings. "Part of the fun of imaginary friends is that they don’t always think like you do," said Taylor. "In fact, it surprised us at first that with a lot of imaginary friends, there is a lot of arguing going on and a lot of negativity, even. An imaginary friend will be mean, hit you on the head, put yogurt in your hair, and so on."

Does this mean that imaginary friends ought to all be all locked up in imaginary jails? Taylor says no. "Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation [in real life]. If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery. Pretend is something children have available to them, that is a coping mechanism they can use in their lives. And they don’t have a lot of other ones, really. They’re pretty helpless and small and have to depend on others, but they do have their imaginations, and they use them to cope."

Thus pretend play and imaginary characters are often a healthy sign of resilience and creativity. Taylor is routinely contacted by parents who are concerned about what the imaginary friends are doing, fearing that imaginary play might point to something wrong in real life. “We see lots of negativity and difficult stuff going on in the pretend play of kids who are healthy and doing just fine," says Taylor. "That can make parents uncomfortable."

But Taylor found that "children just like to think about being bad. Why not have an imaginary friend who is like that, to explore what it means to be bad? You have to think of it as exploring emotional space. There’s a lot to think through about behavior. Kids use pretend to try it on, they do [bad things] in their pretend play so that they have some control over it.”

One parent came to Taylor because her child’s imaginary friend was always sick. "The child didn’t want to leave home because she didn’t want to leave the imaginary friend because [the friend] was so sick," said Taylor. "We put our heads together and thought about how to work within the pretend play. So we had the mother invent a new imaginary friend who could stay home with the sick one. And then the child was totally happy to go! Children like it when parents pretend along. Some people say, 'Well, the imaginary friend is a private thing that [the child doesn’t] want to share.' But that’s just not true. Kids love it when adults participate in their pretend worlds."