A study by Wharton School’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” that I first wrote about in July got a lot of attention this week. First, from self-helpuru Marcus Buckingham on the Huffington Post, in a piece trumpeted as the beginning of a series, and which benefitted from some prominent pimping courtesy of a characteristically ginormously-fonted email from none less than Arianna herself. In a message entitled “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling,” Huffington offered this synopsis of the issue:
It doesn’t matter what their marital status is, how much money they make, whether or not they have children, their ethnic background, or the country they live in. Women around the world are in a funk.
This was followed on Sunday, by a take from the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd. The issue: since the 70s, despite all the advances in opportunity and access, women have been growing increasingly unhappy. The question: why?
Well, that, Buckingham doesn’t tell us. Though he does tell us what the phenomenon is officially, measurably not attributable to:
- women working longer hours than men: They don’t, according to a study of 25 countries, which took both paid work and home work into account.
- gender-based stereotyping (I’m quoting here): Buckingham says that today, 42% of men agree with the statement “Men should be the primary breadwinner and women should be the primary caretaker of home and family.” 39% of women agree with it, too.
- an unequal division of the workload in the home, the so-called second shift: Though women still do more housework each day, numbers are trending towards equality across the sexes.
Let’s review, shall we? Point one: work. Sure, we may do as much work as our male counterparts, but, by easing the burden of the breadwinner for men, I think it’s pretty logical that such a development might make men happier, not women. Second: stereotyping. Maybe both men and women feel the same about that official decree, but I think, no matter what we say we believe and no matter how many diapers our husbands are willing to change, we’ve internalized the good mommy, happy homemaker ideal. The socialization that succeeded in keeping us in the home for centuries was potent: the hangover lingers, and we continue to measure ourselves, in some part, against that feminine ideal–even while we say we don’t. And finally, the second shift: numbers might be “trending” in the right direction, but we’re not there yet.
(Not to be a broken record, but there are still the minor issues of, say, the ERA that was never passed, or the fact that we still are not paid the same for equal work, or the fact that we’re still wildly underrepresented in government, the boardroom, and academia to consider.)
And now, because we’ve begun making inroads, we’re supposed to slap on a smile and call it a day? It makes me think of a quote from Germaine Greer:
When we talk about women having it all, what they really have ‘all’ of is the work.
Or, as Dowd put it, in her aptly titled piece “Blue is the New Black”:
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.
Who wouldn’t be stressed out? When you look at it that way, what Stevenson and Wolfers dubbed a paradox, I might be more inclined to call a Well, Duh.
Here’s a little more from Dowd:
Add to this the fact that women are hormonally more complicated and biologically more vulnerable. Women are much harder on themselves than men. They tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work and pop far more antidepressants. Another daunting thing: America is more youth and looks obsessed than ever, with an array of expensive cosmetic procedures that allow women to be their own Frankenstein Barbies.
We are overwhelmed by choices and judgment, and the pressure to appear happy, young, and perky while we deal with it. It’s new territory, with no directions, no mapped-out trails to follow. As Buckingham himself said,
Choice is inherently stressful, and women are being driven to distraction.
Dowd ended with a silver-lining take on that idea:
Stevenson looks on the bright side of the dark trend, suggesting that happiness is beside the point. We’re happy to have our newfound abundance of choices, she said, even if those choices end up making us unhappier.
And I’m choosing to end my thoughts with a rant, which I don’t think is at all beside the point. I can’t help but wonder why is it that a high profile woman with a huge platform like Arianna Huffington is turning over the issue to a man to answer? The more cynical me might wonder if there isn’t just a tad of latent sexism in that decision. The poor, confused, unhappily liberated women need a man to lead us out of the woods? Talk about a paradox.
I mean, the guy has a book to sell, and I’m sure it’s useful, in a masculine, problem/solution kind of way. As chock-full useful, Easy Steps for Finding Fulfillment as Self is of same, for Achieving the Perfect Butt.
And I have to wonder: by focusing on self-reported, empirical measurements of happiness, are we conveniently missing the harder point, making what is, at its core, a societal issue personal instead? Is this issue of happiness just a smokescreen, to keep the discussion light and distract us from what lies beneath: that, despite all the strides we’ve made towards equality, we are simply not there yet?
Is a cut-and-dry “specific explanation and accompanying prescription” really all it’s going to take? Or are we, in fact, due for another revolution of sorts–one for women, led by, ahem, women?