Let’s just agree for one last time that all this happiness business in the wake of the “Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness” study has a very unhappy subtext: Blame the victim.
The victim being us.
You’re not happy? The horror! There must be something wrong with you. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself.
It’s all enough to make you, well, you know…
So let’s just admit once and for all, shall we, that this emperor has forgotten his pants. It’s nonsense. Every bit of it. And much of the silliness derives from the way happiness has come to be defined in all the media blowback. It’s either perfection, as in the universe is all in its place, which is somewhat akin to what one of our sources dubs “Pottery Barn Psychosis”.
Or alternately, happiness equals braindead. As in when life happens, you deal with it by slapping a smile on your face (Or an apron around your waist. Be patient — I’ll get there later) and telling yourself that everything is just peachy.
Ugh and then again, ugh.
In either case, you’re most likely miserable. So are we all. Because either kind of happiness is one impossible measure. Yet, measure up (or buck up) is what we are told to do. Which means that not only are we not, um, happy, but we don’t get cracking on fixing the stuff that might need fixing.
Which was why Rebecca Traster’s piece in Salon aptly entitled “Screw Happiness” made me, you guessed it, happy. She not only makes the point that so-called happiness is not the human condition, but more importantly: embracing the unhappiness that is often part of daily life is what propels us forward. Done.
She starts off the essay by wondering why the waiter at a New Orleans restaurant asked her and her fiance if everything was perfect — and wonders about the expectation that it should be. She goes on to note that women especially bear the brunt of the smiley face — America’s obsession with perfection and happiness:
When it comes to social science and economics, women lately seem especially prone to having the contentment thermometer thrust at them, and their temperature always seems to register at “dissatisfied.” A study by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, as well as one by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, have shown a decline in female happiness in the years since the second wave, a trend that has been cheerily used as proof of exactly how unhappy increased social, sexual, professional and economic liberation has made American women. Even those who dare make claim to general life satisfaction are told not to get too comfortable; as Marcus Buckingham, the author of “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” gloomily warned any aberrantly chipper chicks in a piece last year, “as women get older they get sadder.”
But really, how could they not, given the aggressive messages about happiness and how they must achieve it, and unhappiness and how they must avoid it that are foisted on them from every direction, making them feel like failures if they are not warbling and grinning their way through life?
Love it. Later, Traister tackles perfection’s alter-ego: all the scolds that tell women that whatever they choose, they would be happier if they had chosen something else (sound familiar?). Find a mate! Stay single! Have kids! No, don’t! Focus on your career! But not too much! Traister, about to marry the man she loves, is caught in all the mixed messages and calls them out for what they are:
The irony is that all the behaviors that provoke the head shaking — seeking love, concentrating on career and economic independence, having children, not having children, continuing to work after motherhood — are the very things we choose to do in pursuit of satisfaction for ourselves, not to mention to support ourselves. Stop doing those spoiled things that bring you fulfillment or you’ll never find fulfillment!
You know what I think? It’s all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I’ve aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I’m just not sure that “happiness” is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it’s punishing that we’re constantly being pushed to achieve it.
Some of the avenues open in the 21st century bring women joy, some bring its opposite; often they just mean more hours worked, fewer hours slept, new sets of fears and anxieties alongside new opportunities for accomplishment, pleasure and pride — in other words, the range of feeling and experience that comprise a typical day, a week, a year, a life. It is this daily, varied reality that makes me wish we could stop using happiness, or perfection, as the yardstick by which we evaluate our lives, and that we could stop gravely shaking our heads at every instance that a woman fails to measure up.
Which leads us, strangely, to aprons. According to the LA Times, expensive ones are the latest must-haves among SoCal “apronistas.” Their term, not mine. In the story, Cynthia Wadell, founder of Heavenly Hostess, which sells upscale aprons, says that this symbol of 1950’s womanhood is “now an empowering icon for the abundance of choices in a woman’s life.”
I’m not so sure. I can’t help thinking that the apron strings are all tied up to this happiness stuff. We’re constantly being told that it’s our choices that make us unhappy. Which makes me wonder. If we buy that stuff — which, for the record, I do not — is this cultish return to June Cleaver’s favorite accessory a reactionary wish to go back to the time when we had none?