Thanks probably to my mother herself, I'm not. (Sadder than her, that is. I'm almost certainly happier.) But many women today are sadder than their peers were 40 years ago, according to a study by Penn researchers called "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." You may have heard about this study, as best-selling Marcus Buckingham has made quite a stir with it on the Huffington Post, as has Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.
In addition to being less happy than previous generations—while men are getting happier—women are also increasingly sad as they get older.
Why is this happening? Did the women's movement make things better for men rather than women?
Last week I was on an NPR show called Forum discussing just this with historian Ruth Rosen and one of the study authors. Lots of theories about what might be happening were raised; here is what I think is going on, in brief. You can also listen to the discussion here.
- The women's movement changed women's lives, but institutions—like our government, marriages, workplaces, and childcare options—did not also change in the same proportions. Historian Ruth Rosen is particularly articulate on this point here.
- Having more choices makes us more free, but it doesn't necessarily make us happier. So now we can choose to go to work (theoretically—some of us have to work) or stay home with our kids, and we have greater choices regarding what we can do for our careers, and greater choices about whether or not to get and stay married. All these choices are important, but they aren't necessarily creating greater happiness. As Barry Schwartz has taught us, there is a paradox that comes with choices: having more choices makes us more dissatisfied with what we choose. So when you pick out some jam at the supermarket, if you choose from only three kinds of jam you'll be happier with your choice than if you choose from 10 kinds. Same thing is true with our lives.
- We have fewer strong and frequent social connections than women did 40 years ago. The more we join and participate in groups and see our friends and family, the happier we tend to be. In fact, Robert Putman has shown convincingly that our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our social connections—and that these bonds with others are on the decline.
- There are huge discrepancies between our aspirations and our achievements. This is related to point one, above: our expectations are higher about how great our lives will be. We've been raised to believe that we can do anything, be anything. But then we grow up and realize that we actually can't do it all, all at once, and it is deeply disappointing. It makes us sad. And when we try to do everything anyway, we feel both disappointed and insane.
- We are also experiencing a related abundance paradox: we feel entitled to having it all. So when we don't get what we want, we feel disappointed, instead of feeling grateful when we do get what we want.
There are, of course, other things at play here, like the fact that women are more likely than men to be unmarried the older they get, and this predicts greater unhappiness (think of those social connections). But the five things I've listed above are things we can do something about. Here are some things we can do to be happier:
- Work to change the institutions around you. Some workplaces and husbands have changed, but few have changed enough to make it possible for a woman to raise happy and well-adjusted children while working full-time while also feeling quite happy themselves.
- Try to make choices that will lead to happiness habits, rather than ones that will leave you depleted and disappointed. See this posting for some suggestions.
- Spend time with your friends, family, and neighbors. Join groups and associations, and go to the meetings. Nothing is more important for your happiness than this.
- Go easy on yourself. As my father always said, "My only goal is to climb a low mountain." This is a good attitude—if your expectations are low, you won't get caught in that abundance paradox, above—and one that I think reflects a real gender discrepancy when it comes to childrearing. Men pat themselves on the back for making it to back-to-school night; women leave back-to-school night feeling guilty that they aren't the room parent, that they are only driving on one field trip, and that they aren't taking the class gecko home for winter break. All that guilt does you no good; as Robert Hillyer said, "If you are doing your best, you will not have time to worry about failure."
- Consciously practice gratitude: I promise, you'll be happier for it.
These trends are not trivial for the quality of our lives, or for our children's: our happiness can have a hugely positive influence on our children's.
What do you think? Are you sadder than your mother and her peers? If so, why do you think that might be? If not, how are you bucking the trend?
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Plagnol, Anke, and Richard Easterlin. "Aspirations, Attainments, and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences between American Women and Men." GeNet Workign Paper No. 32 (2008). http://www.tmbc.com/site/strongestlifebook/resources/aspirations.pdf
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004.
Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." University of Pennsylvania, 2009.
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