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Posts Tagged ‘the paradox of declining female happiness’

This just in: Men are as miserable as women. At least that’s what we learn from a new study by Arizona State professor Chris M. Herbst, who suggests that men’s happiness has taken as big a dive as women’s over the past several years.

We think that’s good news.

Back in 2009, Penn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published ground-breaking research that sent the interwebs atwitter. Titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” the study found that while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men.

At which point, the pundits swarmed: Was the women’s movement — responsible for ushering women out of the kitchen and into the workplace — to blame for this happiness gap? Were women themselves at fault for not taking proper care of themselves? There must be something wrong with you if you’re not happy, the media howled. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself or to a workplace that has not changed to accommodate the new reality: though women represent close to half of the workforce, the workplace still operates like a set from “Mad Men”as if the ideal employee is one with Betty Draper at home to take care of business.

Back to Herbst’s study: Not content to let women own their own funk, he used a different measure of well-being — happiness is notoriously hard to measure, if not define — to find that men’s life satisfaction had not only declined as much as women’s over the past two decades, but had gone south even more rapidly than women’s in recent years:

Men and women have also experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health. In a further departure from [Stevenson and Wolfers] results, I find that although the downward trend in life satisfaction became less severe for men and women over time, the slowdown occurred more aggressively among women. As a result, men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late-1980s.

He suggests the reason may be a combination of several factors based on the erosion in social and civic engagement — coupled with economic insecurity.

Maybe so, but we think there’s something else at play. Because we’re optimists, we tend to think that all of this declining happiness business may be a sign of something positive: gender roles are shifting, and we — men and women alike — are working through the growing pains. As men begin to share more of the second shift in our dual-career families, are they also sharing more of the angst? And will that lead to positive change?

A new study out of the Families and Work Institute seems to suggest yes. According to “The New Male Mystique,” released last month, as gender roles have begun to shift—men’s stress over work-and-family conflict has increased. Last year, we interviewed Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute and an author of the report, for our book and she told us that preliminary data on increasing stress levels among men suggested that the idea of work–life fit might move out of the pink ghetto and start being framed as change that benefits all of us.

Some might snipe that it’s time already that men feel the conflict too. But Galinsky believes that, as the generation of men who are (or who expect to be) more involved at home climb the ranks, they’re likely to be more amenable to family-friendly policies. She said her studies find that when supervisors—regardless of age or gender—have responsibilities for kids or elders, they are seen as more supportive of work–life policies, because, said Galinsky, “when you go through it yourself, typically you feel different about it.

What’s more, she told us, when men as well as women leave work to pick up kids—or if dad does the drop-off at the onsite daycare center— the stigma, and that maternal wall, starts to go away. “In an ideal world,” Galinsky said, “work would work for you and your employer, and there are some policies that would help you do that, but where the rubber hits the road is how your supervisor and coworkers treat you. You can work at a company that has fantastic policies, or live in a country that has fantastic policies, and you can still have a horrible situation. There has to be a culture where people value personal and family time.”

All of which goes to the heart of what’s often left out of studies of satisfaction and well-being: what has been dubbed a personal issue is really a political one. Maybe instead of kvetching about who’s happier than whom, what we ought to be talking about is changes in workplace structures and public policy.

And wouldn’t that just make all of us just a little bit more, you know, happy?

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Frankly, all this hype about happy is making me sad. It’s not enough we have folks like Marcus Buckingham telling us how to be happy — and making us feel guilty because we are not. Or the incessant volleys about the paradox of women’s declining happiness. But, frankly, despite the wealth of books, blogs, life coaching and, yep, even college courses about how to become happy little campers, we can’t even define the term.

That’s a problem, writes Carlin Flora in this month’s Psychology Today. He not only provides some research-backed insight into what so-called happiness is truly all about (hint: it doesn’t have much to do with shopping, as this post on some new research suggests. Or smiley faces, for that matter.) He also points out that — finally — there’s some counterpoint to what he dubs the “happiness frenzy.” And hooray for that.

I mean, really, hasn’t all the recent talk about slapping on a smile made you just a little bit grumpy?

While all this happiness business began as the serious study of positive psychology, the science has lately been reduced to the equivalent of a mylar balloon emblazoned with a happy face. Not good, Florin writes:

It wasn’t enough that an array of academic strands came together, sparking a slew of insights into the sunny side of life. Self-appointed experts jumped on the happiness bandwagon. A shallow sea of yellow smiley faces, self-help gurus, and purveyors of kitchen-table wisdom have strip-mined the science, extracted a lot of fool’s gold, and stormed the marketplace with guarantees to annihilate your worry, stress, anguish, dejection, and even ennui. Once and for all! All it takes is a little gratitude. Or maybe a lot.

What we’ve lost in all this focus on the sunny side of life is the ability — no, even the permission — to embrace the melancholy, which in turn pathologizes sadness, which is often the true, honest and normal reaction to life as we know it. More from Carlin:

There are those who see in the happiness brigade a glib and even dispiriting Pollyanna gloss. So it’s not surprising that the happiness movement has unleashed a counterforce, led by a troika of academics. Jerome Wakefield of New York University and Allan Horwitz of Rutgers have penned The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder, and Wake Forest University’s Eric Wilson has written a defense of melancholy in Against Happiness. They observe that our preoccupation with happiness has come at the cost of sadness, an important feeling that we’ve tried to banish from our emotional repertoire.

Horwitz laments that young people who are naturally weepy after breakups are often urged to medicate themselves instead of working through their sadness. Wilson fumes that our obsession with happiness amounts to a “craven disregard” for the melancholic perspective that has given rise to our greatest works of art. “The happy man,” he writes, “is a hollow man.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. But, as Flora continues, happiness isn’t about smiling or pretending or desperately seeking sunshine. It’s more along the lines of, well, facing reality. And that includes a certain amount of discomfort. Even angst:

…It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment. While the veritable experts lie in different camps and sometimes challenge one another, over the past decade they’ve together assembled big chunks of the happiness puzzle.

What is happiness? The most useful definition—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than “happy” in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.

It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort. It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.

Flora ends the piece with a round-up of various theories on happiness. I think my favorite is this:

Happiness is not your reward for escaping pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on, without letting them overwhelm you. Russ Harris, a medical doctor-cum-counselor and author of The Happiness Trap, calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous because they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” They don’t acknowledge that real life is full of disappointments, loss, and inconveniences. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

Happy-ness redefined? Permission to be anything less? To choose, as Shannon wrote last week, interesting over happy and call it a day? Wow. It’s enough to make me, well, you know….

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When everything is on the menu, it takes an awful lot of willpower to say, you know, I’m not really that hungry. Even if you’re really not that hungry. Even if, in fact, you’re stuffed.

This being the season of the cocktail party, I’m unable to think in anything other than food metaphors, but, in this post, which concerns a recent piece by journalist/author Naomi Wolf–she of The Beauty Myth fame–I think an appetizer allegory works. The piece, entitled “The Achievement Myth,” launches with what has now become the de rigeur bashing of Marcus Buckingham’s take on the study The Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness, emphasizing that, rather than describing themselves as unhappy:

…the women had told the researchers whom Buckingham cited that they were ‘not satisfied’ with many areas of their lives. If Western women have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is how to be unsatisfied with the status quo.

And thank god for that. Thanks to the women who gave voice to their dissatisfaction and drove the changes of those years, we’re free to seek out better: we no longer have to settle for unsatisfying jobs, bosses, or sex lives. And, as Wolf points out, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at pinpointing our dissatisfaction, and, from there, setting our sights on greener pastures. But the lure of better, the implicit promise of better, well, that’s where it gets tricky. Here’s a little more from Wolf:

But the downside of this aspirational language and philosophy can be a perpetual, personal restlessness. Many men and women in the rest of the world–especially in the developing world–observe this in us and are ambivalent about it.

Indeed, the definition of Western feminism as “always more” has led to a paradox. Our girls and young women are unable to relax. New data in the West reveal that we have not necessarily raised a generation of daughters who are exuding self-respect and self-esteem. We are raising a generation of girls who are extremely hard on themselves–who set their own personal standards incredibly, even punishingly high–and who don’t give themselves a chance to rest and think, “that’s enough.”

Enough. It’s a simple concept–and yet utterly foreign. This is the home of the All You Can Eat Buffet, after all. And when you’re told you can Have It All, well, to settle for anything short of that is… to settle. To turn in your plate before sampling the goods at every station is to miss out on your money’s worth.

Wolf suggests we’d be wise to redefine our definition of success beyond the professional and the external, to include

other forms of achievement, such as caring for elderly parents, being a nurturing member of the community, or–how very un-Western!–attaining a certain inner wisdom, insight, or peace.

…Should Western feminism deepen its definition of a successful woman’s life, so that more than credentials can demonstrate well-made choices? I believe the time is right to do so. As markets collapse, unemployment skyrockets, and the foundations of our institutions shift in seismic ways, this could be a moment of great opportunity for women and those for whom they care.

It certainly could be. And while I am in no position to demonstrate how to walk the line between satisfaction and settling, maybe we could take a lesson from the buffet line. That maybe it’s worth setting the same sort of goal in life as we do in the dining room: like the kind of awareness that allows us pass up the mini-quiches we kind of like so we’ll have room to really enjoy the crab cakes we adore, that places us fully in the moment of bliss that is a mouthful of warm brie rather than the distracted did-I-really-just-eat-14-cheese-puffs? variety blackout, that empowers us to skip the eggnog everyone else tries to shove down our throats but that we actually cannot stand, the kind of consciousness that allows us to recognize the spot where we’re full–and to actually stop there and enjoy the fullness.

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Hold the hankies, girls. Here comes the heresy. To wit, maybe we’re actually a lot happier than Marcus Buckingham et al think we are.

It’s not that anyone disputes the data. Clearly, the numbers are all there, and they show that quantitatively, women rate themselves lower on the happiness scale than they did back in the seventies.

But amidst all this media blowback, I can’t help wondering: are we once again being sold a bill of goods? Are we maybe defining happiness a little narrowly? Confusing unhappiness with stress? And is all this talk about the happiness gap some sort of subtle ploy to convince us that, really, we were better off when we stuck to the kitchen? That there’s no path like the safe path?

Before the “woe is me” goes viral, maybe we’d be better off wondering why.

Because here’s the thing. The more our opportunities, our choices, our expectations grow — the more our lives expand, the more we juggle. And of course we’re angsty. We have more demands on our time and our abilities, both personally and professionally. More responsibilities. More relationships. We reach outside ourselves, we stretch, we put ourselves out there in a way that means others are going to judge us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or a social scientist — to note that of course we would feel pulled, stretched and stressed. But see, here comes the heresy. I don’t think that is necessarily how you measure happy. Sure, you work all day. Then you come home and wrangle all the stuff of real life — dinner, laundry, kids, bills, you name it — and maybe work some more before bed. Tired, yeah. Stressed, maybe. Pissed off, quite possibly. But truly unhappy? Depends on how you define it.

Or how you parse it out. Check out this smart counterpoint on HuffPo by Morra Aarons-Mele and Ellen Galinski, who offer some good data to suggest that men, too, might have some of this unhappiness action as well.

As Shannon wrote on Sunday:

... 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?

Feministe blogger Jillian Hewitt seems to get it:

… Perhaps there’s something to be said for the fact that with greater opportunities, higher standards of living, etc. come more opportunities for problems… 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.

….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.

Nor should any of us. If we’re truly in a funk because life has dealt us more opportunity, maybe it’s not the choices themselves that have made us unhappy. But rather, the fact that we haven’t quite mastered the art of dealing with them.

And then there’s this. Despite all those new sources of stress out there — job, grad school, the kids and the dog, the blog (oops, did I type that out loud?) — on balance, isn’t the satisfaction and fullfillment we get out of any or all worth a dose of angst now and then?

I don’t call that unhappy. I call it growing pains.

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Check what some of our readers have had to say this past week. To continue the conversations — or read the whole comments — click the links.

On quarterlife:

“…especially with all the recent layoffs, quarter-lifers like myself are stuck answering the age-old question: what should I do with my life? I have a full-time job I enjoy and am still struggling… The best thing about the mid-20s is that you can dress and act like a teenager (and get away with it) and dress and act like an upwardly mobile junior executive (and get away with it). The worst part about the mid-20s: trying to decide which of those images accurately reflects YOU.”          — Timithie

“I’m getting stressed out just reading those questions! I’ve been trying to decide on a car to purchase for five years. FIVE YEARS. I can make great decisions at the office – but when it comes to this… hybrid? 4-wheel drive? fun? practical? lease? buy? 2-door? navigation? red? leather? floormats? cupholders? aaargh. Hello, indecisions and paralysis. It’s embarrassing, frankly. Although, should I be embarassed, or embrace it? Share it, or hide it? Fake it, or own it? I digress.” — Page

“It’s so wonderful to have the plethora of options that we do…but I have no idea which way to go. Some of the stuff I have absolutely nailed down – I know what kind of clothes I like to wear; I know that I DON’T want to be a mathematician… As for the rest…I’m at a loss.” — Marjorie

About women and their choices:

“I am 65 years old and have had the option to work or not work throughout my marriage. …Up to about 35 I used to worry about why I liked to change and explore new things and what was wrong with me that I could not find one goal or profession and stick to it for life like Georgia O’ Keefe did with her passion for painting. But, at around 40, I decided to accept that this is just who I am… I have continued to and hope to never stop changing, learning and growing as the years go on and love it that way.” — Dottie

“I am mostly happy with my job — it’s challenging and well-paid and flexible — but at the same time I constantly feel like I’m just dancing around in circles on the fringes of “the dream job.” I also struggle with how big and important a role I want career to play in my life anyway. I came out of law school thinking I wanted career to be my entire life, and the older I get, the less important career seems and the more important the rest of life seems…” — Anne

“What a relief to find that I’m not the only one who has experienced this phenomenon! I keep reading everything, thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” My sister used to tease me that I was on the semester system in life because I was always moving and changing jobs. But really I was just worried that I was missing my “true calling” or not doing enough to fulfill my parents’ expectations after all that schooling. .. Now I’m almost 40 and starting yet a new career… Looking back I can see how the choices and self-inflicted expectations led to a major paralysis in my mid-20’s…” — Marisa

“One of my favorite things about being a woman, and about women in general, is how they tend to be better at adapting to change than men. I feel this is a real benefit when you look at the number of choices before us these days…You have to bend and mold and be flexible to be successful in life and I see that women really tend to show this strength. No wonder we have so many choices before us…women rule. I say “Bring it ON”!! — Ani

“Yes, I swim in a sea of confusion over my options! Being a woman who feels she is unlimited, I’ve spent too much time debating my opportunities instead of picking one path and sticking with it. I can’t complain; life has been good. I do, however, feel concern that I might be overlooking the one thing that is my “calling.” From orchestra conductor to herpetologist to cartographer to photographer to writer, I’ve wanted to do it all. I also know that I can, we all can…”          — Lauren

On “Commencement”:

“…I’m curious to see how women (or men) from previous generations would relate to the characters. One interesting tidbit, I thought, was from one of the character’s mothers, who said — while cooking dinner and doing 90% of the housework — that women with careers and families makes life easier for one gender… men.” — Colleen

On the pressure of the passion versus paycheck dilemma:

“I feel like I have dealt with this issue my entire life, just on a slightly different level. What if you don’t have a passion? It always seems to come up: What would you do if time, money and experience didn’t matter, how would you spend your time? Honestly, I have no idea. … When I did my corporate job for 10 years, I did it well (I have the annual reviews to back that up), but it wasn’t what I lived for. I worked to live, not lived to work. My real life was always on the verge of something else. The verge of what? who knows. I was talking with a friend this weekend who basically thought it was pointless to work in a job that wasn’t emotionally, spiritually, and creatively fullfilling. I thought good for her, but what about everyone else? I kept thinking, this is a first-world problem and really doesn’t apply to much of the world.” — Joanna

On the happiness gap:

“… with so many choices and so many opportunities, it seems like women can now choose careers that they want to pursue rather than doing something they have to do. Unfortunately, our society seems to encourage us to seek out jobs that pay the most money rather than jobs that we enjoy. Finding a high-paying job you love isn’t easy. Of course we all need money to live, but is it worth doing something that causes so much stress just to have the money? Perhaps the women that are the most anxious, stressed and medicated are those that are pursuing high-paying, high-stress jobs that they hate – jobs that in the past may have been held primarily by men.”  — Jennifer

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Wharton School’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published a study in May that’s been dubbed “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” The title kinda says it all, but the gist is that, while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men. And, as one might imagine, dozens of articles came out in the wake of that study, riffing on the whys.

From the Sunday London Times:

There’s plenty more opportunities for women than there used to be–but then again, that means you are always questioning whether the moves you have made are correct, or whether you should have done something else.

From BusinessWeek:

Over the last 50 years, women have secured greater opportunity, greater achievement, greater influence, and more money. But over the same time period, they have become less happy, more anxious, more stressed, and, in ever-increasing numbers, they are medicating themselves for it,’ says management thinker and author Marcus Buckingham… ‘Better education and job opportunities and freedoms have decreased life happiness for women.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a bit of a problem with that assessment. (Not least because it’s coming from a guy.) The Washington Examiner’s Marta Mossburg had this to say:

Too many choices or opportunities can paralyze rather than inspire. Men are used to this. For women, opportunity is still a relatively new phenomenon, and often a confusing one.

and

Women’s declining happiness in the face of greatly expanded freedoms should come as no surprise. But neither should a reversal of the trend once they have the time to get used to it.

That I can get behind. What about you? What do you think? Does this idea get your hackles up, or do you think there might be a kernel of not-so-convenient truth in there? Would you be happier if your only career options were teacher, secretary, nurse; what if our society was down with arranged marriages, for that matter? And, okay, we’ll be happier once we get used to it. Swell. But in the meantime, we’re living our lives now, wishing we were just a tad happier than we are… So how do we get there?

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