an unprecedented level of education, greater earning power, more economic independence, more reproductive control and access to virtually any career, from CEO to soldier to leader of the free world. In theory, at least, a woman’s prospects for happiness have never looked brighter.
But, not so fast, reality might be different:
Two recent studies reveal that a majority of American women are finding the holy grail of happiness more elusive. Researchers were startled to find that women now report less happiness than in the early 1970s; and where they once indicated greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction than men, that’s now reversed.
Could these two things be related and would a return to the old gender roles make women happier? No, says Haddock: “most women adamantly oppose a return to rigid gender roles.” So, what’s behind this unhappiness?
[M]en today report spending less time on activities they regard as stressful and unpleasant than a few decades ago. Women still spend about 23 hours a week in the unpleasant-activity zone — which was about 40 minutes more than men four decades ago, and now amounts to 90 minutes more than men.
So, we get stuck with the boring stuff while the guys are having fun! Of course, Haddock also points out that defining happiness, let alone measuring it, is tricky business, especially when comparing across genders: A “gender-based “happiness gap” is particularly complicated, given that men tend to see “Are you happy?” as a yes-or-no proposition. For women, it’s an essay question.” Of course, that might also be a sexist assumption…
Nevertheless, she reports these research findings:
Since 1972, women’s self-described levels of happiness have fallen a few percentage points and now rest below that of men, on average, in every age category. It is particularly pronounced in those ages 30 to 44 — not coincidentally, women dealing with child rearing and aging parents, while reaching a critical point in their careers.
And, although the gap is small, it is troubling – at least to researchers – because it seems to defy the logic that women can achieve more now and therefore they should be happier. Yet again, the time gap plays in:
Working-age women, for example, increasingly spend more time on paid work, caring for adults and watching TV — and less time cooking, ironing, dusting, entertaining and reading — than in the 1960s. But the data also reveals that men are spending less time on paid work and relaxing more — including watching more TV. In essence, men have gotten the knack of spending less time doing things they consider unpleasant.
Again, it looks like the happiness gap is driven by how we spend our time: men relax more, women work more (whether first or second shift). There seems to be a connection here but Haddock now takes a strange turn by looking at the amount of choices we have: somehow having too many choices makes us unhappy.
But for the first time in history, women confront a wider array of life alternatives than men, who rarely contemplate, for example, putting their careers on hold to care for children or aging parents. We’re still adjusting to this shift in the cultural paradigm.
Is it not the amount of choices but that we’re expected to do it all? And if for some reason we can’t or won’t, we’re somehow a failure? I completely disagree with Haddock that the large amount of choices are the problem. The problem is that they are not really choices: We cannot do A or B. We are expected to do A and B. That is not choice. That’s piling on the stuff! Haddock agrees, on a personal level, “The alchemy of female content may be to make bold decisions and then refuse to be tormented by the seductive lure of the untaken path.” Haddock ignores in this statement society’s expectations that create the guilt over not running on all the paths.
After pointing out that there still is quite a bit of real inequality (“women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn”), Haddock finally addresses the system side, albeit more as a footnote, and blaming women, rather than all of society:
Many women also set stratospheric expectations for themselves, and for each other — reinforced by the cult of Martha Stewart, a slew of self-improvement books, the prevalence of plastic surgery. We’ve come to regard our work lives, our home lives and our private lives as projects to be endlessly tweaked in pursuit of perfection.
Where do these “stratospheric expectations” come from? We’re not born with them simply because we were born female! She quotes a researcher: “Women need to learn not to be motivated so much by what people expect or say or think of us.” What about telling those people to stop expecting too much from us?
And, of course, there is the general societal expectation to be happy that’s probably also haunting us:
Darrin McMahon, a history professor at Florida State and author of the book “Happiness: A History,” whose critique is not gender specific, argues that we live in a society where we feel pressure to be happy. “When we’re not, we feel like failures,” he says. “What we get is the unhappiness of not being happy.”
Pointing out that women might need to stop feeling responsible for everybody and everything, Haddock concludes
If nothing else, the declaration of a happiness gender gap is generating provocative conversation. The researchers themselves note that because men traditionally were less happy, perhaps women’s happiness has diminished as they’ve entered into their world and are now bedeviled by the same woes that have long depressed men.
Or maybe the happiness gap isn’t actually new at all. “Freakonomics” author and economist Steven Levitt suggests “there was enormous social pressure on women in the old days to pretend they were happy even if they weren’t.”
I think Haddock makes some good points, and certainly asking questions about the gender gap makes sense. Yet, her response reeks of “blaming the victim.” Rather than stepping back and pointing out the superwoman expectations, Haddock admonishes women for trying to be superwoman. As women we have the right to refuse to be superwoman. However, as long as society (including ourselves) expects us to be superwoman, we will feel less happy and more guilty because we just can’t do it all.