“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” – Aristotle
WHY STUDY HAPPINESS?
Already in ancient times, philosophers debated the nature of happiness and the recipes for a happy and fulfilling life. Today this question is also hotly debated by scientists and politicians, who are particularly interested in what can be done to increase the happiness of their voters (and citizens, more generally). Happiness has become so important nowadays that four countries: Bhutan, Ecuador, UAE, and Venezuela went so far as to employ ministers of happiness!
Everywhere around the world, including the West, we now hear proposals to assess public policies not only by looking at the impact they have on standard economic indicators but also on how they affect other aspects of wellbeing. For example, a greater focus on happiness has been recently advocated by UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron. "It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money”, he argued, “and it's time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing."
This is the motivation behind happiness economics – a new, fast-developing field in economics research striving to increase our understanding of what, really, increases individual wellbeing.
DOES WORK FOR PAY MAKE THE SOUTH CAUCASUS WOMEN ANY HAPPIER?
We decided to contribute to the happiness literature by providing evidence about the happiness and life satisfaction of working women and housewives in the South Caucasus. There are several immediate economic benefits to a society related to greater female participation in the labor market. Not being confined to the traditional role of housewives, women greatly contribute to a country’s development by providing a helping hand with productive activities, be it in services (including IT), agriculture and manufacturing. Additionally, by acquiring professional skills and experience women become less dependent on their spouses and/or society. Finally, having more than one breadwinner in a household reduces its vulnerability to negative shocks, thereby reducing the risk of poverty.
These all appear to be very good arguments for policymakers to encourage women to acquire professional skills and enter the labor market. But what if we add women’s happiness to the equation?
The first question to ask is how women really feel about entering the labor market. Importantly, work for pay can both enhance and reduce the individual happiness of working women. For example, working women may feel quite happy when pursuing their own interests and personal fulfillment. Most often, however, paid work does not result from a free (unconstrained) choice, but rather responds to a need. In this case, there are two opposing forces at play. On the one hand, women may be forced to work and earn income in order to satisfy their needs and those of their families. Being able to earn additional income is certainly a good thing, promoting any person’s feeling of happiness. On the other hand, however, paid work outside the household may come on top of whatever activities women have to perform at home (even in the less traditional western societies house chores are mostly performed by women). A woman who ends up working “the second shift”, as Arlie Hochschild put it in 1989, might find it hard to enjoy her job and the extra income that comes with it.
The increased burden on working women is likely to be especially heavy in traditional societies, in which stereotypical gender roles are still very strongly rooted. The three countries in the South Caucasus are a clear case in point. In both Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, traditional values maintain their sway on households and societies as a whole, leading to a very unequal division of housework and care responsibilities among the genders. With this in mind, it is not at all obvious that entering the labor market should always lead to an increase in women’s happiness.
TAKING THE QUESTION TO THE DATA
To shed some empirical light on this question we conducted a comparative analysis of happiness and life satisfaction of employed women and housewives in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, using the CRRC Caucasus Barometer data for 2010-2013. In each country we matched working women with comparable housewives (i.e. women with very similar demographic characteristics, like age, number of children, education level, etc.), and tried to understand: 1) which of the two groups seemed happier / more satisfied with life and 2) what seemed to drive the difference in happiness between the two groups.
Our findings indicate that there are some curious differences in the way women feel given their employment status. In particular, we find a significantly lower level of happiness among employed women in Armenia (the gap is equivalent to 8% of the average level of happiness), a milder but still negative effect of employment on the happiness of working women in Azerbaijan (equivalent to 3% of the average level of happiness of women in this country), and a large positive effect of employment on life satisfaction of women in Georgia (equivalent to 15% of the average level of life satisfaction for Georgian women). So, working women appear to be less happy than housewives in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and more satisfied with their lives than Georgian housewives.
Further analysis suggests that the differences in the average levels of happiness and life satisfaction across the two groups are mostly driven by extreme cases (women who attain the top or bottom levels of happiness and life satisfaction). For example, Armenian working women are 16% less likely to be very happy compared to Armenian housewives. In other words, work is preventing many Armenian women from attaining the highest level of happiness. On the contrary, we find that working Georgian women are 9% less likely to report extreme dissatisfaction with life compared to Georgian housewives. In Azerbaijan, working women are 3% less likely to be very happy, and are 2% more likely to be very unhappy compared to Azeri housewives.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT GEORGIA IS DOING BETTER?
What are the reasons for the differential impact of employment on working women’s happiness and life satisfaction in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia? Is it due to ethnic and cultural differences? Quality of formal institutions, such a preschool education? Types of jobs available to women in the three countries or any other economic incentives?
Understanding what is driving such differences is quite important, especially if the different outcomes are not God-given but rather are driven by institutions, which could be altered through public policies. This is why, in the second part of our research, we tried to disentangle the “country effect” (that is the impact of formal institutions in a country) from the “ethnicity effect” (that is the impact of ethnic norms).
To answer this question, we conducted a separate analysis of women of Armenian and Azeri ethnicity living in Georgia. We find no negative effect from being employed among these ethnic groups, suggesting that the negative impact of employment on women’s happiness in Armenia and Azerbaijan might be due to country-specific effects rather than cultural or ethnic factors.
What could be these country-specific institutional factors that make Georgia’s working women (regardless of their ethnicity) happier than their peers in Armenia and Azerbaijan? The most likely candidates are the significantly higher pre-school enrollment rate and higher incidence of part-time work in Georgia. These factors might help minimize the stress of combining household duties with paid work, thus contributing to the feeling of happiness on the part of working women.
|Fertility rate, average births per woman (2010)||1.74||1.92||1.82|
|Gross enrollment ratio in pre-primary education, % (2010)||31||25||58|
|Share of women in part-time work, % (2003, 2008)||30.1||24.3||53.7|
These, however, are merely educated guesses at the moment. Additional research would be required to determine the true nature of the relationship between public policies, institutions, female labor force participation, and women’s happiness. Armed with this knowledge, countries in the South Caucasus (and not only) would be able to heed David Cameron’s advice and maximize not only Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but also people’s gross wellbeing (GWB).