More on women and (un)happiness
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?