Monday, October 12, 2009

Women are becoming more unhappy, surveys say. Is it by choice, or because we have choices?

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.)

I emailed Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (both book and blog), and asked her for her insight into this latest happiness survey. "It’s clear that having more choices doesn’t always make people feel happier," she told me. "Nevertheless, people want to have choices. Happiness has many levels, and sometimes to be happier on one level means being less happy on another level."

"As always, the secret to happiness is to know yourself and to make mindful choices that reflect your own true interests, values, and priorities," she said. "And to try to get enough sleep."

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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