Frustrated Women and Hopeful Men: The Gender Gap in Americans’ Moods

6 minute read

With midterm elections looming, a TIME/Harris poll found Americans in a middling mood: Downbeat—slightly more than half of respondents feel negative about the current state of the U.S., with only about a quarter feeling positive—but not without hope. That hope, however, is not uniformly distributed.

“Frustrated” was the top word chosen by female respondents when asked to choose which on a list of 14 emotions they had experienced most often during the previous 30 days. “Hopeful” was tops for men.

The nationwide survey, conducted Oct. 7-10, did not ask people how they planned to vote on Nov. 8, when the entire U.S. House, one third of the Senate, and 36 governors will be on the ballot. But to the extent a midterm election serves as a referendum on the circumstances of the nation under the party holding the White House, the survey may offer insight into the recent surge detected by several polls of undecided independent women toward the Republican side.

Men and women named “happy” in equal proportions, with 14% of respondents in both groups selecting it as their most frequent feeling. But though the survey did not attempt to measure the intensity of the emotions, women were more likely than men to tick “tired” and “anxious” as what they felt most over the previous month. Men, meanwhile, were significantly more likely than women to select “excited” and “proud.” (In fact, other than drawing even on happiness, all of the clearly positive emotions in the list of options were selected by a greater percentage of men.)

The poll also reveals how some major national and global goings-on are hitting differently across gender lines.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Voting in the 2022 Midterm Elections

The TIME/Harris poll shows the economy—perhaps the top issue for many Americans, with inflation hitting hard—simply looms larger for women. Though men were more likely to have lost wages, more women (37% of respondents) than men (29%) reported having adjusted their personal budget because of changing prices in the previous 30 days. And women were more likely (59%) than men (55%) to say the economy negatively affected their personal moods. Among those issues asked about—including COVID-19, social media, public safety, and other concerns—the economy was the one that women were most likely to say has a negative personal mood impact, whereas men were slightly more likely (56%) to say so about politics. (A slightly more modest 52% of women said politics negatively affected their moods.)

Unsurprisingly, when asked about the national mood, as opposed to their personal moods, the economy was also the realm that respondents overall (63%) were most likely to say had a negative impact.

But the gender gap wasn’t the only difference revealed by the poll. Older Americans, for instance, reported feeling particularly affected by “global events.” In fact, the older the American, the more international headlines darkened their mood. Just 35% of 18- to 34-year-olds cited global events as contributing negatively to their personal outlooks, but the percentage rises steadily with each cohort, reaching 75% among those 65 and older. (And again, the numbers for women are slightly higher: 79% at 65+.)

The positivity of Black Americans also stands out across the survey. Some 43% reported feeling positive about the current state of the country (compared to 27% of the entire sample), and 22% reported “hopeful” as the emotion they’d felt “most” in the previous 30 days; “hopeful” also ranked first among Hispanic respondents. (For white Americans, “frustrated” ranked first.) Black people were far more likely to name politics as a source of good feeling, with 43% saying it contributed positively to their personal moods, which was true for only 18% of white respondents and 30% of Hispanic respondents. In fact, Black Americans were notably more likely to name as a “positive” contributor to mood every option offered by the poll: the economy, events around climate change, COVID-19 (both the pandemics and precautions against it), public safety, the Supreme Court, social media, human rights (including race relations), and global events.

The survey sought to capture a snapshot of America in transition more ways than many of us can keep straight.

The first challenge is perception. With the possible exception of hurricane coverage, experiences once shared together are now refracted through any number of prisms—social media algorithms, stridently partisan cable channels, and one’s posture toward former President Donald Trump, the only chief executive in modern times to decline to appeal to national unity, and the first to refuse to acknowledge losing an election.

Then, beyond perception, reality awaits: Climate change is as familiar as the weather and the worst global pandemic in 100 years produced effects—in health, income, and alienation—that coincided with a crisis in racial justice, followed, in some cities, by a sharp rise in violent crime. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the federal ban on abortion.

Read more: Column: The Failure of the Feminist Industrial Complex

In that torrent of challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic stands out for the strain placed on women, especially mothers compelled to leave jobs they could not do from home. While earlier recessions tended to hit hardest on manufacturing and other fields dominated by men, in 2020 the worst casualties were fields that heavily employed women, such as hospitality, retail, and restaurants. And those women who could work from home often were saddled by additional duties in child care. In her paper Understanding the Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women, Harvard economist Claudia Golden chooses some of the same words respondents did in the poll: “Far more mothers, and other women who are caregivers, have been stressed, frustrated, and anxious because they did not leave their jobs than have been forced to exit the workforce or cut back their hours.”

In some ways—but only some—the poll reflects the nation’s political polarization. Those who identified as liberals were more than twice as likely as those who identified as conservative to describe their feelings about the current state of the U.S. “positively.” (The assessments of self-described moderates and independents roughly aligned with the assessments of conservatives and Republicans.)

On the personal level, though, politics did not appear to figure much in what people were feeling day to day. Presented that list of 14 emotions, and asked which one they experienced “most” over the previous 30 days, the selections were strikingly similar across the ideologies. Liberal, moderate, and conservative Americans for the most part only differed slightly in the degree to which they reported have felt hopeful, frustrated, happy, tired, anxious, confident, disappointed, excited, hopeless, sad, angry, proud, relieved, and scared.

The exceptions were as mild as they were rare: Liberals skewed a bit more “anxious.” And no conservative reported feeling most often “relieved.”

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