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Are women choosing not to be happy?

Categories: Career, Hacking Life, Uncategorized, Working? Living?

10 comments

If you’re not happy right now, take heart: You’re not alone.

According to the newest data from the United States General Social Survey, women today are less happy then they were back in 1972. Moreover, the survey found, women today become increasingly unhappy as they age compared to men, whose happiness levels trended upward as they got older.

It would be easy to dismiss it as another All-Is-Crap-With-The-Economy statistic if not for the fact that the General Social Survey has been asking the same question — “How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?”– to 1,500 men and women, of all ages, income levels, educational backgrounds, and marital statuses since 1972. And that the survey’s findings jibe with the results of six other major, long-term happiness studies around the world — more than 1.3 million men and women surveyed over the last 40 years, and in every study, the greater the opportunities women have the less happy they are over time, as compared to men.

But you know what? I think you have to choose to be happy. And that being able to consider personal happiness is a privilege afforded to those for whom the basic necessities — food, clothing, shelter — aren’t an issue. And that surveys, even ones as broad and as far-reaching as these, are still full of holes.One hole is that these surveys didn’t put the question to the same women year after year. I don’t know about you or your family, but if someone asked my mom in 1972 whether she was happy — at home, married for just over a year, her two Masters degrees collecting dust and a squalling newborn (me) who refused to nap (sorry, Mom) spitting up over everything (really, really sorry, Mom) — I doubt she would have been singing with joy. Ask her now? She’s probably happier in many ways. But ask me instead of her, and compare the data? Her increase in happiness probably isn’t reflected in my response.

In fact, it’s likely that I’m just as stressed out as she was in ‘72 — possibly more so. But the stressors are very, very different. I’m a different person, for one thing. And I’ve made very different choices in my life.

In an article at The Huffington Post, Marcus Buckingham suggests that the very fact that women have more choices available to them today has contributed to their unhappiness. He writes:

The hard-won rights, opportunities, and advantages were supposed to have netted women more than just another burdensome role to play — “you at work.” They were supposed to have fostered in each woman feelings of fulfillment and happiness, and even, for the special few, the sustained thrill of living of an authentic life.

This hasn’t happened. Over the last 40 years or so, life is not trending toward more fulfillment for women; life is, in most ways we can measure, becoming more draining instead. To use Thomas Jefferson’s words, though women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they’d like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.

At The New York Times, op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd is a bit more blunt about it, asking, “Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women?” She continues:

“When women stepped into male-dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”

I see their points, but I take issue with the whole “women have brought this upon themselves” premise. (Not to mention the idea that a woman’s happiness depends on how she fares compared to her friends in various frivolous, material, or social-networking categories. Come on… that’s not feminism.)

Here’s my take on it: I think we’re wrongly equating temporary stress with long-term unhappiness. As I’ve mentioned before, there are four different types of stress, and some of it can even be positive. But it’s rare that we’re on a constant eustress high — which means that when we’re stressed out, we’re unhappy, but that unhappiness isn’t necessarily permanent.

I also think we’re confusing “happiness” with “satisfaction.” On the whole, women worldwide have become more aware. We know what’s available to us, and can compare it (favorably or unfavorably) to what’s available to other women in other places. We know what we want, and we know whether it’s within our grasps. We are more ambitious, more competitive, and more selective. We simply want more from life. If ignorance is bliss, it’s no wonder that women are less happy now than they were nearly 40 years ago.



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10 comments so far...

  • I heard of another study not too long ago that “proved” that women get happier as they get older, more so than men. I am not sure what was different about that study. But the happier-as-we-age definitely rings more true for me, as it has been my experience and my observation of others over time.

    I totally agree that happiness is a choice. In our current culture, it’s trendy and fun to find something to complain about. I do it too. But we need to separate those day-to-day irritations from our sense of inner happiness/peace. So my kids are sick and bratty today, my work backlog is huge, I’m disputing a bill, some adoption formalities have been delayed due to a government error. That’s what’s bubbling on the surface. But in the big picture, I have a job that is perfect for me, my kids have no long-term health or behavioral problems, my finances are sound, my family unit is strong. And I’m happy. I didn’t always know this, but I read a lot and basically learned to consciously list all the things that are going right in my life. Even during my worst financial or family crises, the list of blessings always outweighed the momentary problems. We just have to keep reminding ourselves to step back and give the good stuff a chance to bubble to the surface sometimes.

    SKL  |  October 5th, 2009 at 11:55 am

  • I too find myself happier as I’m older because I’ve just decided a lot of the other stuff isn’t that important. So I have the smallest house on the block; there’s only two of us, and means less for me to clean!
    My child is great, everyone tells me how much fun she is, happy and smiling. If I’m the main one who notices the sullen brattiness, so much the better.
    Dinner parties? I hate to cook and my circle of friends & church long ago moved to potluck so everyone has a good time.
    On the other hand, could I have been so blase about life 15 years ago? Probably not. So I probably agree with the happier-as-we-age study.
    I think one reason men have been shown to be less happy is so many have their sense of self is tied to the singluar area of work. If you define yourself by your work, and reach the pinnacle at 45; what else could possibly make you happy?

    Mich  |  October 5th, 2009 at 2:56 pm

  • Lately I have been wondering about this exact same issue. Can you choose to be happy? Even when life throws you major challenges? I have friends who post inspirational thoughts that cannot seem to turn my mood, and even my husband has suggested I want to be unhappy.

    Here’s what I’ve been dealing with:
    This year in Jan my husband was hospitalized for a week with an unknown infection. They never found out what was wrong with him. But we had a $3000+ bill to pay nonetheless.
    I was sick almost constantly from Jan-April, and since then have been sick periodically. I am currently fighting off a cold after just fighting off one 2 weeks ago. No amount of vitamins or anything preventative seems to be working. I am convinced it’s stress.
    My supervisor has developed a bizarre need to control me in every way and has created special rules just for me, that no one else in the office has to follow. I have no autonomy anymore and have longer hours. She is very condescending and there is no HR dept to complain to. The new later hours mean I cannot see my 2 year old daughter before she goes to bed at night. If I am lucky enough to get home, I see her for 10-15 mins.
    My husband also got laid off in April and has had no luck in finding a job at all, so he has decided to start a photography business. This is a wonderful idea and it is his passion, but I can’t quit b/c I am the sole provider right now and seems as though I will be for a long time.

    I don’t feel “woe is me” at all. I just feel stressed beyond belief with no light at the end of the tunnel. I am glad my husband gets to be a stay at home dad, but spending only an hour and a half with my daughter M-F is taking its toll on me emotionally. I feel like an absentee mom.

    Can I choose to be happy… or happier? Yes. But this year has been a really bad one for me. It has been very difficult to be positive when almost daily I am treated horribly at work and then just come home, don’t see my daughter, and collapse on the couch. I am a real fun wife these days, let me tell you!

    I think SKL has a good point. Finding your inner peace/happiness, and letting the good stuff bubble to the surface. Maybe I am so down that I’m drowning out the ability to let the good stuff surface? Hmmm…

    VMT  |  October 6th, 2009 at 11:05 pm

  • VMT, it is interesting that I read your post just now, because I was thinking about my mom and how she has had some real challenges to being “happy.” She also felt like she was constantly disrespected at work, and she was tired all the time. She ended up losing the job (it was an elected position), but she still felt tired all the time. It turned out that she had colon cancer. She discovered it just in time (it’s a very deadly cancer). Please consider any possible health-based reason for chronic tiredness and fatigue. I know it’s hard to take time for things like that, but it could make a huge difference.

    The other thing that came to mind before I logged on this morning is the number of women and men that I know who are on anti-depressants. Although I hope I never need to do that, it’s really been a Godsend for many. We can theorize about how our moods are affected by diet, environment, TV, exercise, world view, etc., but some people have “tried it all” and still aren’t helped by anything other than the chemical. So I would not dismiss that as a potential help after exhausting all the non-chemical options.

    SKL  |  October 7th, 2009 at 9:41 am

  • I’m not happy that I have to work, at least full-time. Not that I am lazy by any means. My house is clean, my child is VERY well taken care of, but I just feel like I am losing time being a “mom”. It takes 2 incomes these days to survive (for most of us). And, I am the breadwinner. I have so much on my plate, some days I just want to hide.

    I am married twice. My first marriage I planned on began as a SAH mom, until my ex was unfaithful with someone at work when my baby was only 7 months old. We divorced, and I was thrown back out there in the workforce. He since married this girl, and had 2 more kids with her. SHE, took my place of being the SAH mom while I go to work everyday to support my child. I guess I still have some bitterness towards that. Yes, I remarried, but I ended up being the breadwinner, which puts a TON of stress on me during these economic times. I am NOT going to marry someone just for money… so for those of you who think I should have held out for a sugardaddy… nope. Not me. I love my husband dearly, its just stressful to have to be the one who brings home the most money to pay our bills and mortgage. I feel like I dont have any “safety net” there incase I fall. Some days I feel like falling is bound to happen and I am going to bring everyone down with me.

    I could choke the women’s lib people that pushed for women in the workplace. I’d be much happier being at home taking care of my daughter, picking her up from school like my mom did, being there to RAISE her, rather than throwing her to someone else to keep while I bring home a paycheck. I’d prefer to be cleaning, cooking, gardening, taking my child to the park, and having more freedom than the lowsey 3 hours each night that I have with her. I’d join the PTA, be a “class mom”, be there when she gets out of school…..believe it or not, that is the life that I’ve wanted. At least while my child was small.

    I dont have that choice now, so I make the best of it. But am I happy about it, NO. I am torn between my child and my job all the time… I feel guilty if I am away from work, and hate to know that I have NO CHOICE but to be there or else we’ll lose everything. I am educated with a Bachelors Degree, but I only got it because I knew one day I might need it. I was right. I never really had that “drive” to be a careerwoman… I just do it because I have no choice.

    I’m just too stressed out and feel like I have to be superwoman every day. I’m sure there’s other moms out there that feel like me. Or maybe I’m just alone.

    I am happy and so blessed and grateful however, that I have a beautiful, healthy little girl that I love more than anything…. I just wish I had more time with her. I feel like a part-time mom and it hurts.

    Unhappy Working Mommy  |  October 7th, 2009 at 1:29 pm

  • I totally agree with you. Happiness is a choice. Yes, we have many choices to make in all of our many roles, but if this is our problem — so many choices and too little time to be thoughtful about all of them — then we are very lucky women.

    Leasa  |  October 8th, 2009 at 9:05 am

  • It’s not that I’m unhappy per se…it’s just that there’s so much to do. Every time I’ve “chosen” to be happy (read: do less), there has been this boomerang effect that made the things I decided to do less come back at me tenfold. I am not a control freak and I actively try to get rid of some of my responsibilities (both at home and at work). Unfortunately, if others don’t take ownership of them, they come back to me a million times worse than when I tried to get rid of them in the first place. Now, I just keep everything and stress my way along. I hope there is an end to the treadmill…I just don’t see it yet.

    However, no matter my stress, I would rather be stressed out juggling a job that I enjoy and a family that I love than be faced with the financial trap that I saw my mother’s and grandmother’s generations endure. No amount of free time can make up for the financial security that I created for myself.

    Pat  |  October 8th, 2009 at 3:34 pm

  • better than “satisfaction,” maybe best contrast to happiness, which, despite it being one of the deep down American rights to pursue, is still so often linked to often fleeting circumstances - better is “joy”

    an interesting view of the pursuit of happiness from the famous Harvard study, which was supposed to tell us the secrets of it all from well-balanced, promising young men, who seemed destined for it:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200906/happiness

    Stefan  |  October 9th, 2009 at 6:36 am

  • This is EXACTLY….the kind of article that the MEN want to see.

    Instead of this trash, articles should be depicting that women ARE successful and happy.

    Another thing, If we stopped taking care of men’s every need, things would be alot easier, which makes us happy! :)

    Billie  |  October 27th, 2009 at 1:15 pm

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Billie. The post isn’t saying that women are not happy — it’s questioning the results of a study. And I think the “Men vs. Women” attitude you touch on is part of the problem, not the solution… I don’t think men (in general) want women (in general) to be unhappy.

    Lylah  |  October 27th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

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