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Women and Happiness October 6, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy of Gender.
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Women are less happy than they used to be according to recent research that received a lot of attention from commentators last week. Maureen Dowd in the NY Times reported:

According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier.

Before the ’70s, there was a gender gap in America in which women felt greater well-being. Now there’s a gender gap in which men feel better about their lives.

As Arianna Huffington points out in a blog post headlined “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling”: “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.”

Marcus Buckingham, a former Gallup researcher and author of “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” describes the data:

“Though women begin their lives more fulfilled than men, as they age, they gradually become less happy,” Buckingham writes in his new blog on The Huffington Post, pointing out that this darker view covers feelings about marriage, money and material goods. “Men, in contrast, get happier as they get older.”

Buckingham argues that the unhappiness of women is explained not by the burdens of the second shift—housework in addition to remunerative labor—but by the increased choices that women have today:

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.

“Choice is inherently stressful,” Buckingham said in an interview. “And women are being driven to distraction.”

And these higher standards are exacerbated by female biology:

Add this to 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

These data tell us something about how women think their lives are going, but they measure only one aspect of happiness, and we should be careful about drawing conclusions from this impoverished understanding of happiness.

The General Social Survey relies on self-reports of subjective well-being—how a person feels about her life as measured by the survey question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

But feelings of pleasure, contentment or satisfaction are only one measure of how life is going. Part of happiness is exercising one’s capabilities to their fullest—realizing our full potential. The struggle to do so may not produce attitudes of pleasant contentment. Think of the lives of most athletes or artists. Their lives may consist of much frustration and pain—a hard slog on most days. But I doubt they invariably think of themselves as unhappy despite their struggle. They might gain contentment or have more fun by giving up their pursuit of achievement but would not think they had increased their happiness.

In other words we seek to live meaningful lives as well as contented and satisfied lives and these goals are not always working in tandem. Yet both are part of human happiness.

Evaluation of our lives can diverge significantly from mere reports of how one feels and surveys that ask only about subjective feelings miss this dimension of happiness. Impoverished definitions, as employed in these surveys, can lead to bad policies if, by relying on them, women reassess their commitment to full participation in society.

Women have rejected the idea that their human capabilities are limited, and they have made their full exercise the standard by which happiness is measured. They will not be satisfied with a return to the days when college was for finding a husband and achievement narrated on the pages of Good Housekeeping, regardless of how much peace and contentment such a retreat might promise. Of course, women should seek balance in their lives, which is the focus of Buckingham’s book, but not at the expense of their aspirations.

The problem is not that women aim too high. The problem is that a fully human life will be thick with clashing desires.

As to the improvement in subjective assessments of men’s happiness, I suspect women’s liberation has benefited men. We now have partners who can think independently, communicate, earn, and share all dimensions of life.

It is hard to imagine anything that would do more to enhance the happiness of men.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com




1. So Are Women Really Unhappy? « Philosophy On The Mesa - October 13, 2009

[…] Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender. trackback I’ve been toying with a response to Dwight’s piece about women and happiness , but it got so long that I decided to make it into a post, mainly consisting of stray thoughts. […]

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