Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More on women and (un)happiness

by Jillian Hewitt

I’m not the first to talk about it this week (see Gracie's post from Monday), but I also want to address the issue of women’s happiness in light of recent media attention. Marcus Buckingham, who himself has written a book titled Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, wrote an article that appeared in the Huffington Post this week discussing the phenomenon of female unhappiness. Indeed, from 1972 to 2006 women became increasingly unhappy—and in the same time frame, came to enjoy many of the benefits of the feminist movement. As Buckingham puts it, “greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.” In fact, men’s happiness has steadily increased since 1972.

So what’s the deal? Would most women really rather go back to a time when society assured them that their sole calling was to be a mother and housewife? I’m sure some would, and I won’t pretend to speak for them. I’m also not going to pretend that I have any answers as to why this is the case; I just want to touch on some thoughts I have about the subject. It’s important for us to have an open discussion about this topic, especially when it may be seen as extremely damaging to the feminist movement. Because, you know, what’s the point having all these rights and opportunities and stuff if we were happier being Mrs. Cleaver? So let’s open up and take a look not only at why we might be less happy, but why (and whether) it matters that we are less happy. To be clear, there are thousands of issues I won’t address in this post, not the least of which are the possible reasons for increasing male happiness.

First, I’m going to assume that the data is accurate: Buckingham sites the United States General Social Survey but also notes that six recent, major studies from around the world have produced similar findings. So in 1972, the average woman rated her happiness as a 2.24; in 2006 she rated her happiness as a 2.17 on a scale from 1-3. But is it possible that the factors on which women based their happiness ratings have changed in the past forty years? In 1972, how many women evaluated their happiness with regards to whether they had a husband, children, and a stable income? To me it seems quite possible that women may have evaluated themselves as happy without ever really feeling fulfilled. Is it possible that the list of factors contributing to our happiness has been greatly expanded, and thus women have more awareness as to what might be “missing” from their lives?

I’d like to relate this question to a study I read this week for a class on developing countries that analyzed the results of a Gallup World Poll regarding life satisfaction. In the analysis, the author (Angus Deaton) discusses a phenomenon—that often times, those who are the worst off do not perceive their situation as it objectively is. He asserts that “People do not necessarily perceive the constraints caused by their lack of freedom; the child who is potentially a great musician but never has a chance to find out will not express a lack of life satisfaction.” I wouldn’t dare suggest that the situation of American women in 1972 is nearly as dire as the situation of the poorest of this world, but the analogy seems to hold: that often people do not fully perceive their lack of freedom, and thus do not have strong feelings of unhappiness.

But even if happiness was overstated in 1972, why hasn’t greater opportunity and freedom for women led us to have at least the same levels of happiness? Perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that with greater opportunities, higher standards of living, etc. come more opportunities for problems: problems with our jobs, problems funding our education, problems with relationships, problems balancing motherhood and a career,…the list goes on. Maybe we just need to face up to the fact that there are simply more things to be unhappy about. But even if we are more unhappy, I would argue that we still have reason to feel more fulfilled. Even if we fail—fail to get into the school we want, fail to get the job we want, fail to find the man or woman of our dreams—we can still be grateful that we had the opportunity to do so.

This reminds me of a scene in Garden State (see it if you haven’t already) when Zach Braff’s character decides to go off his depression medication and confronts his father about their relationship. He concludes that “We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is we are and that will be better.” So maybe we need to think about the trade-off between self-assessed, numerical “happiness” and a sense of true being—a sense of being that allows us to be unhappy for reasons that we couldn’t even have dreamt about forty years ago.

The final point I want to make is actually drawn off of a quote used by Gracie earlier in the week. She quotes Betsey Stevenson, who explains that “Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children…Yet I know very few people who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids or who would tell me they feel their kids were the destroyer of their happiness.” And I think the same logic applies in light of this situation, too: maybe it’s true that our “greater educational, political, and employment opportunities” have made us less happy. But those opportunities aren’t ones that I’m willing to give back.

Who are the people in your life who make you happier? What do you have to be grateful for today?


At September 24, 2009 at 12:49 AM , Anonymous Novaseeker said...

The underlying issue, of course, is that feminists like Dowd and Stevenson can't bring themselves to acknowledge that -- gasp! -- some of these ideas that feminism had actually didn't work out so well for women, in the end. Instead they engage in tired stereotypes about the pressures on women (which they seem mostly to put on themselves, but often blame men, or "patriarchy", for anyway), whining about how much easier it is for single older men than single older women (Dowd seems to have cornered the market on that one) and, following the mantra of the second wave, blaming children and motherhood for their unhappiness. I suspect we won't ever get much honesty from this generation of American women, or honest self-reflection, and that they will be thrusting their fists up towards the sky even as their bones are finally laid to rest. But some of us may be able to fill in the blanks a bit.

Here are the reasons why I think that women are experiencing a "happiness gap" currently relative to men.

1. Fulfillment differences. Women and men, on average, find different things fulfilling. As Dowd hints at, but doesn't fully admit, women tend to place more weight, in terms of fulfillment, on the quality of their personal relationships than men do. And what has suffered a lot in the last 40 years? Personal relationships between men and women, clearly, as evidenced by the rate of divorce as a leading indicator. But even beyond that data point, the data that Buckingham cites shows that women are becoming less happy as they age, while men, by contrast, are becoming *more* happy as they age.

I think in order to understand this, one needs to understand that women tend to be faring quite well in relationships early in life (at least relative to men), but that this shifts in the 30s. I suspect what happens is that in their pre-marriage years, women can better "have it all" than at any time in their lives. They are young and at their most attractive, capable of attracting the highest quality men than at any other time in their lives, but at the same time they are not tied down with responsibilities, either to a husband or children, and are enjoying the financial benefits of their jobs/careers with the money to spend on themselves and their lives. That's a recipe for quite a good bit of happiness for many, I would imagine.

As women move into the marrying ages, that changes. The responsibilities pile on, the career starts to feel more like a "job", juggling marital relationships with work becomes more taxing than it was with the 20s age relationships due to the enhanced expectations attached to them, and if/when children enter the mix, the stress builds up a lot. Something always seems to be suffering, whether it's career advancement, time with the husband, quality of the marriage, time with the baby/child(ren), and so on. I think this hits women much harder than men not because of some imagined, huge "housework gap" (Buckingham disabuses his readers of that falsehood quite well), but rather because women are more sensitive to the impact of all of this on their relationships, and they value the quality of their relationships much more than men do when assessing their overall level of contentedness. Women feel pulled in a lot of directions and can feel their relationships suffering for it, and this can make them quite unhappy -- and, importantly, much more unhappy about it than men. Men are more stoic, generally, I think, and can cruise along for quite some time without really feeling "unhappy", even if they aren't particularly fulfilled. In part, however, this is also due to a difference in expectations, on average, between men and women as I note in the next section.

At September 24, 2009 at 12:49 AM , Anonymous novaseeker said...

2. Expectations differences. Women have been led by the popular culture, in which feminist ideas play a significant role, to develop very long lists of expectations of what they need in order to be fulfilled. Generally these lists are far longer than anything comparable on the male side of the fence. And so this operates as a set up. She who has the greatest expectations in life is also setting herself up for the greatest disappointments, whereas he who expects less will also tend to be more happy with what he ends up with in life. There are numerous exceptions to this among men and women, but I do think that, on average, this is a significant difference between today's women and men. In the past, women also had a more limited set of expectations -- that has changed, and the increased expectations have provided more opportunity for women to feel less fulfilled.

At September 24, 2009 at 12:50 AM , Anonymous novaseeker said...

3. The paradox of choice. Some people don't do very well when they have a surfeit of choices. To a certain extent, this is a personality difference -- there are men who struggle making up their minds with a Chinese menu of over a hundred dishes, for example, or who are otherwise indecisive. But, on average, I think that men tend to make decisions -- at least most decisions -- rather more easily or less agonizingly than women do. One example that most of us would be familiar with is shopping. We all know the stories of men bored to tears shopping with their wives, sitting in the designated "man chairs" in women's clothing stores and so on as their wives try on various outfits, in a series of shops, before deciding on one, or none, as the case may be after several hours of sifting, comparing and selecting (or not). The same man shopping for himself earlier in the week was probably in and out of Macy's in 20 minutes. It's true that a typical man will spend more time making decisions about things that he values, but the point is that men, generally speaking and on average, seem simply to enjoy the process of weeding out and comparing things to each other much less than women do. At the same time, many men seem more comfortable with making decisions more quickly than women do, at least about most matters other than the most life-impacting. I can remember well explaining to my then wife that I did not need more time to select a certain item I was shopping for. She asked me incredulously: "But how can you do know that this is absolutely the best thing you could have chosen?" -- to which I replied: "It may not be the absolute best, but it's good enough for what I am looking for". She stared at me incredulously, obviously not relating to the mindset at all. "Good enough" was a tough concept, even for all but the most mundane shopping-related choices.

One can speculate as to the basis for this difference, but in any case the upshot of it appears to be that men sweat decisions somewhat less than women do and on average seem to be less stressed when presented with an array of choices, because they do not feel under pressure to make the absolute best choice in each case. Men tend, on average, to be more comfortable with "satisficing" for many choices, while reserving a higher degree of scrutiny for the handful of truly important choices on any given day. Women seem more inclined to enjoy the process of sifting and comparing and so on as long as there is no pressure to actually make a decision.

I think this has a few impacts on women and happiness. One is that it simply creates stress, which increases unhappiness. Another is that the comparison with the men in their lives (and how they may *not* be sweating the same decisions in the same way) can create anger and resentment that also increases unhappiness while also creating relationship issues, again adding to the pile of unhappiness. Sometimes this gets blamed on men for not "pulling their weight" (regardless of Buckingham's evidence that this is not generally the case), but I think that often the unhappiness relates to the standards women are imposing on themselves and their lack of comfort, compared to the men in their lives, with "winging it" with respect to the small stuff. These differences probably created less unhappiness and fewer resentments when men and women had their respective roles -- both because women had full control over their own domain, and did not have to bear men making decisions in that domain in a rather different way than they would if they were making the decision, and also because women had fewer areas in which to make decisions, compared to today's dizzying array of choices women face in all spheres of their lives. Both of those changes, when put together with the way many women approach decisionmaking, is a recipe for stress and unhappiness.

At September 24, 2009 at 12:51 AM , Anonymous Novaseeker said...

Of course, the moral of the story is "you can't have it all". That is true for both men and women. But fewer men seem to think that they are SUPPOSED to "have it all" than women do. Men are, in fact, more accustomed to not having it "all", but picking and choosing and so on -- and this is nothing new. I do think that men feel under pressure to juggle more in their lives today than before, but do not suffer from the same pressure to "have it all" or the expectation that every single area of their life will be a masterpiece performance. Couple that together with the reduced pressure to be a breadwinner and so on, and you get increased happiness in men, as compared to what is happening with women.

At September 29, 2009 at 6:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one on happiness and it helps a lot.

Karim - Mind Power


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