According to today’s New York Times, Americans are increasingly facing a happiness gap — men are becoming more relaxed and happier than women. It’s an article that describes how two recent studies appear to have come to similar conclusions. Yet the devil is always in the details.

The thesis is intriguing:

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.

Great, so let’s look at the two paper presentations (sorry, these are not peer-reviewed, published studies, you know, the stuff we actually like to draw conclusions from — the first red flag this is going to be a “fluff piece” of journalism). Here’s what Krueger’s paper said:

The activity-based [misery index] shows very little trend over the last 40 years for men and women combined or for women as a group. For men, however, there has been a shift away from activities associated with unpleasant feelings.

[…] The results indicate that, for the population as a whole, changes in time allocation over the past 40 years have not led to a decrease in the amount of time people spend in activities associated with unpleasant feelings.

So, contrary to the author’s assertion, women aren’t less happy (“She’s Less So”). The only data trending shown in this study is that, somehow, men are spending less time with paid work. Which kind of goes against virtually everything we know about work in America, which is that most Americans — men included — feel like they are working more and getting paid less (if not in money, then in benefits or vacation). I don’t know of anyone who’s work week has actually decreased in the past 20 or 30 years — everyone I know still works 40 or more hours per week. Government census data consistently supports this fact.

Which means that perhaps the Princeton Affect and Time Survey, patterned after the American Time Use Survey, may not be accurately measuring men’s work-time.

The second paper is far more complicated because it attempts to pull together international, disparate data from multiple sources (some of high reliability, some of questionably scientific reliability). The first red flag presented itself in Table 1, which caused me not to bother with an in-depth analysis of the rest of the tables or data.

The table in question presents 2 sets of data, which purportedly show trends that support the authors’ conclusions. But the table is drawn from a question that gives 3 possible responses, not two, so where’s the third set I wondered? Well, conveniently the raw data is available for my own analysis and I ran the same analysis the authors did, but with the missing third set of data. Voila! The missing set of data from “Pretty Happy” shows a clear upward trend from 1972 to 2006, which far better accounts for the downward decline of the “Very Happy” responses amongst women. The “Not Happy” category remains virtually unchanged as a trendline. So yes, women are becoming more “Pretty Happy” and less “Very Happy.” Given these are completely subjective terms, and that women’s role in modern American society has significantly changed (largely for the better) since 1972, I’m not sure I’d read all that much into these data. Certainly not as much as the authors have.

Commenting on dusting in American households (which has what to do with happiness, one can only guess), the NY Times author says — sardonically one hopes — “I imagine that the new American dustiness affects women’s happiness more than men’s.”

So the real story is far simpler (but less interesting) — times have become more complex and simplistic questions that ask about people’s “general happiness” aren’t a very good nor accurate gauge of real happiness in our lives. Whether there exists any actual change in men’s or women’s general happiness isn’t probably as important a question as the one that matters to you — are you more or less happy than you were 10 years ago? And what can you do today to help change that for the better?