WOMANHOOD: The paradox of happiness in women is truly a paradox.
One night, coming home from work, I caught an interview on the radio with a researcher who had finished a study on the paradox of declining women's happiness versus men's happiness http://bpp.wharton.upenn.edu/betseys/papers/Paradox%20of%20declining%20female%20happiness.pdf. And as it turns out, it had gotten a lot of buzz because Maureen Dowd wrote an oped about it in The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/opinion/20dowd.html_r=2&scp=1&sq=blue%20is%20the%20new%20black&st=cse
This interview and Maureen Dowd's article was very interesting. And as I read and thought about women's happiness in the world, it got me thinking as to why. Especially because the researcher pretty much admitted that there really is not a "smoking gun" per say. The study spanned across continents, age groups, married versus single women, working moms versus stay at home. She said all across the board women have had a decline in happiness as they get older since the 70's versus men who get happier. The fact that the study spans stay at home mom's versus working women does negate the first argument that some political groups may say is due to the women's movement of the 70's onward. So we can take that off the table right there.
I do have issue with the global aspect of the study. That does not really compare women apples to apples. Women pretty much outside of Western culture have it pretty rough compared to men. So it is not surprising that their happiness declines as men's rise. I happened to see a segment about a town in India on a travel show on PBS this weekend. They showed women working in the fields, cooking, grinding rice by hand and taking care of children. Then the announcer said "...and the men can be found in the local hookah lounge in the center of the town, conversing and chatting over the local tobacco." And there they all were having a nice, relaxing time while the women were out "Gett'n it done" with back breaking work. So yeah, women are less happier than men in other continents. No kidding.
The other sentence that jumped out at me in a polarizing way was children. According to this, happiness consistently declines after having children. But what does this really mean? I seem to think that it is not children themselves that make women unhappy, but the affects of having children on our bodies and lives, perhaps. I think most women would say that their children are the light and joy of their lives (when they behave, of course...but I digress, chidingly) But really, for many women nothing is more fulfilling from a big picture perspective than having and raising a child. So is it all the extra baggage that having children brings that make women unhappy? The stretch marks? Less time for love and romance? The bigger waistline? The financial stressors? I think we need to be careful saying "children make women unhappy". There are many outside factors that have to do with raising children that I think contribute to a woman's lack of happiness, but not the children themselves.
After reading the Maureen Dowd article, I agree that women are more emotional creatures versus our male counterparts. SO we do care more. I think when we bring it back to Western culture, women and men are equally busy and stressed. But I do think that we women let all of it affect us more. Men are emotionally better equipped to let things roll off them and ride the storms. But her article kind of misses this core point, and that is the biological and chemical differences between men and women. That is a huge factor in contributing to a women's lack of happiness...such as making time for ourselves.
Men are built to be "at the center". They look inward. Women are like the spokes of a wheel, and are outward from the middle. Women take care of of all aspects of her wheel from the center; children, parents, in laws, friends, neighbors, school community, parish community, sisters, grandparents. We take care of others-that's how we were built from the dawn of time. Its how the human race survives. But guess who is last on the list? You guessed it. We have a very difficult time carving out time for ourselves. Even to be alone with ourselves and be still, be quiet. And if we do carve out that time, there is a little voice of guilt that is trying to get your attention that you really should be doing something else. A women's growing "plate" with less time is contributing to less time for herself which equals to less happiness. Because men are chemically built to be centrally focused inward, they have no problem looking inward and saying "I need this, I am going to do this." The "I" for a man is easier to be in touch with than a woman. That in itself contributes to a happier man versus a woman.
Because men are more in touch with the "I" in themselves, they do carve out time for themselves as well as to be with others in a social setting. The researcher in her interview began talking about how" lonely" our society is getting with all this new technology at our fingertips. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook gives us a false sense of socialization and community. She suggested that women are social creatures and need to be social with other people, but the busy lives we all lead is not allowing for that social life to keep us happy. She suggested that men can handle being alone more than women. I completely disagree here. Every man I know loves being social as much as women and are allowed by society more opportunities to be social. Couple that with the "I" mentality, and they get out to be with their buds as much as they need to be. They have poker games, sports games, the pub, bowling, fishing, golf, etc. I think we have book clubs, play dates (but this revolves around children), some "girl's nights out" and maybe lunches.
I think my final theory on this paradox between men versus women's happiness is pretty much in agreement with Maureen Dowd's comment about "beauty pressures". I think this does go hand in hand with my "children" comments above. But there have been increasing pressures through reality TV and other media for women to look 20 even when they are 60. These pressures have been there for decades. But as technological advancements in teeth whitening, cosmetic surgeries and over-the-counter beauty treatments keep rising, their need to sell them for profit keeps rising. Which means they have to make us feel inadequate to want to buy these products through advertising. Add having children and the hardships your body goes through during the experience to this mix and it is even harder to keep "Father Time" away from you. But when you look at men, they have no pressure at all to stay thin and wrinkle free. Society pretty much accepts grey hair, wrinkles & a beer belly as a "seasoned" look. SO they can traipse happily into their middle ages and beyond with a lot less pressure than women. Their bodies don't experience the hardship of childbirth either-so their battle with father time is much easier to win than ours.
My final thought on all this is a more personal one. I was thinking about it during the interview I heard and I am thinking about it now. And that is the question to myself of "Am I happy?" And I think we all may have a difficult time answering that. I think for me, it is many moments of happiness strung together, creating a lifetime. Not a general, blanket statement of happiness. Life is complicated, much more complicated than it was in the 70's, and so are our emotions we bring to it everyday. So the big, general question of "Are you happy?" isn't really a fair one, is it?