So Are Women Really Unhappy? October 13, 2009Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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. There’s so much one could say about that issue—for one thing, that Dwight’s final point is exactly what Mary Wollstonecraft was getting at when she said that, contrary what Rousseau and others of the male persuasion claimed at the time, men are not happier having child-like wives; for both to be professionally fulfilled is a win-win situation. Next, I read the Huffington blog, because what I thought it boiled down to was that Arianna herself might be in a funk, but it turned out to be something else, a plug for a future series of guest blogs by Marcus Buckingham on his media tour! So are women really unhappy, or is Buckingham trying to sell a book claiming that women are unhappy, in an attempt to get unhappy women to buy the book? Oh, I’m so cynical. But I’m generally skeptical of generalizations and blanket statements, especially about people’s amorphous feelings. Are Danes really happy? (That one keeps coming up, and I’m asked at least once a week about the true state of mind of the Danes! Enough, already!) Are women really unhappy? These tabloid-type questions are almost impossible to take seriously unless we do the metaethical groundwork and identify what we mean by happiness, exactly like Dwight suggests. It is in itself fascinating that up until recently philosophers were preoccupied with dread, anguish, Being-Unto-Death, Philosophy of Dying, and other grim but occasionally worthwhile subjects. And now we agonize over getting the right words to pin down the happiness factor. The Mystery of Joy! Which, too, is an occasionally worthwhile subject. And there could well be a connection between the analysis of the happiness of the Danes and the supposed unhappiness of American women: The lower the expectations, the more at ease you might be with less. The higher the expectations, the more frustration you’re likely to feel. That’s a bit simplistic, but it does contain a grain of truth. In addition to that, the “happiness gurus” have, in their enormous disregard for common sense, declared that having children is a sure path to unhappiness. So if women “want it all,” they set themselves (ourselves) up for certain disappointment if they select children as part of the “all.” But what kind of unhappiness is that? The kind where you have to defer gratification and give up on certain self-serving lifestyles, I suspect.
BUT I will concede that there might be a specific reason why some women in the west aren’t satisfied with having all the new possibilities and various forms of freedom. Not because having more freedom makes you more insecure and confused, etc. That’s just condescending. I don’t really believe that the simple life is a happy one, especially if one is aware of other options. And it is certainly true that women tend to judge themselves harshly, but I don’t think that’s anything new. If anything, I actually believe (contrary to Buckingham) that taking on too many obligations is what stresses us out and makes us feel inadequate (if that means we’re unhappy). The instant rewards and easy gratifications are unfortunately part of what many people today count as a happiness factor. But if we remember John Stuart Mill’s suggestion that “It’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” (and despite his leaning toward cultural elitism he certainly had a point there) then perhaps some “unhappiness” on the way to one’s higher aspirations is not a bad thing. But there’s another side to this: many, many women of Huffington’s generation (and mine, “2nd Wave feminists”) have assumed that men are generally happy because of the options and freedoms they have traditionally enjoyed. And now that we have those freedoms, too, and we’re no spring chickens any longer, what do we discover? That happiness isn’t automatically a byproduct of having freedom and options, but stress is. Not having options, yes, that can make you unhappy, but having options doesn’t automatically translate into happiness. So some women are disappointed, and feel cheated. “I want my gender neutral happiness like they promised me!” But some of us realize that if you want it all, then you also get to feel inadequate from time to time, and that men of the old patriarchy have known this all too well, in the professional field—dropping dead from stress-related heart disease in their 50s and 60s. It is an age-old assumption among the ones who are “down” that the ones who are ”up” live fat and happy lives. Well—some lives are of course less problematic than others’, especially if those others do much of the work for you. But unproblematic? Hardly. There’s a built-in tragedy lurking in assuming that happiness is what the other guys have…