Three friends at St Catherine's School
11 April 2019

Happy Talk: the paradox of declining female happiness

​This term we celebrated two UN international days – one for women and one for happiness. The International Day of Women dates back to 1911 and celebrates the many achievements of women over the years. The International Day of Happiness is a much more modern celebration, founded in 2013 by the philanthropist Jayme Illien.  As a baby Illien was abandoned on a roadside in Calcutta, taken to Mother Teresa's orphanage, and from there adopted by an American family. He founded the 'day' to encourage us all to focus on how much we have to be grateful for, and to emphasise the pursuit of happiness as a goal for all human beings. 

Thinking about women and happiness led to my reading about the bicycle, which in the late 1800s became a symbol of liberation for women. In 1896 Susan B Anthony, an American social reformer, commented that "the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world…it gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat".1 Anthony was writing at a time when women couldn't vote, but ate "the bread of dependence…from the hand of father, husband, or brother".  She dreamed of a day when every woman could be "her own individual self…stand and fall by her own individual wisdom and strength".2   

Today women have political, social and economic freedoms unheard of in Anthony's lifetime. Yet that independence hasn't necessarily brought happiness, with research showing that women's sense of wellbeing is declining. A 2009 study, 'The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness', found that since 1972, when levels of happiness started being measured, women in industrialised countries have become less happy, both absolutely and relative to men.2  Because, while women's rights and opportunities have improved enormously, their domestic responsibilities remain the same. This dual responsibility of home and work puts an extra burden on many women and, as they compare themselves to everyone around them, including men, they become cognisant of the disparities.3

This may seem like a picture of doom and gloom, but it's not really. We just need to make sure that we are preparing young women for a world of abundant opportunity but also great complexity. We need to make sure that our girls get the best education possible, but also develop a strength of character that can navigate ambiguity, competition and stress. A strength of character that can challenge inequality, but does so from a perspective of gratitude for the present and optimism for the future. And, perhaps, we also need to make sure we all know where true happiness lies: not in GDP per capita or corporate hierarchies, but in family, friends, a strong purpose, clear goals and generous outlook – and take time to nurture those fundamentals of life.

We live in a country ranked 11th on the happiness scale, a county of long life expectancies, individual freedoms, good social support, and freedom from corruption.4 We don't need to be unhappy.  But we do need to harness our individual self-reliance, independence, wisdom and strength that Susan Anthony fought for and use them to pursue equal opportunity, equal responsibility and happiness as a goal for all human beings.

Easter gives us the perfect opportunity to spend time with our family and friends in the early Autumn sunshine. However you spend the time, I hope it is filled with gratitude and joy ​ and a minimum of domestic responsibility. I look forward to seeing you in Term 2.


1. Susan B Anthony, New York World, 2 Feb 1896. 

2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, 1881-1922.

3. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, 'The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness', The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.  Found at  

4. Anna Petherick, 'Gains in women's rights haven't made women happier. Why is that? The Guardian, 19 May 2016. Found at

5. World Happiness Report 2019. Found at

Dr Julie Townsend, Headmistress
BA (Hons) Cert Ed PhD MBA (Ed Ldship) MACE MACEL