I’m always a little sceptical of Happiness Surveys. I’m not really sure if you can measure the overall happiness of any human group given the infinite number of variables. A new study out of the States, though, shows that women’s contentedness has decreased with feminism rather than increased. Now that we have it all, washing machines, careers and kids, we should be ecstatic and not tracking in the opposite direction.
The researchers are slightly perplexed. We have made very good progress in narrowing the pay gap between men and women, we have made huge strides in getting men to help out around the house and with the children and there are many more opportunities for females today. In fact very few career paths are out of bounds for women. Also our independence in wealth, health and other areas has shot through the roof. Obviously we should be throwing a party everyday but we are not. Our happiness has fallen compared to that of men.
Where women in the 1970s reported themselves to be significantly happier than men, now for the first time, they are reporting levels of happiness lower than men. In Europe our general sense of happiness has risen slightly, but less so for women than men. In twelve European countries, including Ireland, the happiness of women has fallen when compared with men.
In the old days the initial dip in women’s happiness was put down to the fact that while we had made progress in work we were still holding down traditional roles in the family. Therefore it was easy to see why we weren’t happy because we were working hard at careers and effectively doing a ‘second shift’ in the evenings at home. We are led to believe that those conditions have changed with the birth of the New Man, the Metrosexual and the plain ‘Harassed into Helping’ man. According to all research men are generally helping out at home more and sharing a bigger part of the traditionally female household responsibilities. So what is it? Why aren’t we putting out the bunting and slipping into our party frocks?
Astonishingly we are also trying to buy ourselves out of the rut. 79% of women recently surveyed for another female study told researchers that they would go on a spending spree in order to cheer themselves up! This percentage of people using shopping as a way of regulating emotions is alarmingly high. I have no qualifications for analysing such data, but if there were 100 unhappy women and 79 of them believed that a shopping spree would cure it, even I recognise that as dangerously high. The other telling and worrying trend is that the level of new mothers experiencing post natal depression has risen dramatically compared to the 1970s. While the cases range from mild to severe, there are more women suffering than before.
One theory is that women are just being more honest. In this post millennium era women feel that they can be themselves and they don’t have to be the stay at home, happy, smiling, nurturing souls of the stereotypical 1950s woman. Today we can say how we feel openly and that’s encouraged. However there is another theory among the experts and that is that women’s lives have become more complicated. In our attempt for equality we have succeeded in muddying the waters, not only outwardly, but emotionally for ourselves. Some of us may want to stay at home but feel we are betraying those that fought hard for our right not to.
There is another suggestion and that is the lack of support by family, neighbours and friends. Many people live great distances these days from their biological family and fail to replace that support network when they move somewhere else. Women who have local access to a supportive parent or siblings seem to do better in surveys than those who don’t. For most people it is more about fear than reality. A woman who is not living near a family member fears that she might need them sometime and then they won’t be there, rather than actually being disadvantaged by not having them around. And so it is concluded that perhaps the complications we have created are in our own minds.
We also tend to believe that we must desire to have it all in order to be normal. Why wouldn’t you want a high flying career, a successful husband, children, the perfect figure and a nice house all at the same time? Young women, in particular, are under severe pressure to want it all and then go out and get it all. I’ll tell you why you wouldn’t want it all; because it’s exhausting.
Complexity is very, very stressful and there’s nothing like prolonged stress to make you very unhappy at best and at worst, ill. Women have been labelled as great ‘multi taskers’; a nonsense. While we may have the ability to do it, I am convinced it was a gift given to us for short burst use and not something that we should develop into a way of life. Our complexity has spilled over into our physical world as well. We have more these days so we need bigger spaces to hold it, we need bigger brains to keep track of it all and we need more energy to look after it. As I despairingly looked at the overflowing ironing basket over the weekend, it struck me that if we had fewer clothes in the house we’d have less ironing and we’d need less storage space. It’s very tempting to get rid of half of it, but it will never happen.
There is also the sometimes overwhelming confusion of choice. While having choices is a blessing it can slow us down as decision after decision has to be made, even in the course of an ordinary day. These are sometimes simple decisions that our ancestors didn’t have to make. What will I wear? They had a limited amount of clothing so it wasn’t an issue. What will I eat? There were limited food choices financially and socially. How will I get there; walk, bike, car or public transport? People tended not to travel too far anyway and if they did it was on foot or by bike. What will I have for my lunch?
Our forefathers didn’t stand staring into the glass refrigerated cases of the sandwich bar with their boxes of various sandwich fillings. In the modern world we are consumed with the need for variety in everything from our hairstyles, our cars to our entertainment. In a recent attempt to paint a room cream I nearly lost my mind trying to choose. The colour choice for such a non-colour was remarkable. Not only was there a huge range of different creams, there was also the brand choice. Too much choice is just as bad as no choice at all. As a friend of mine often says, “There’s a ditch on both sides of the road”.
I still don’t believe that these studies carry any real significance other than, perhaps, they make us all stop and ponder our own happiness. Ultimately though, happiness is a personal choice and not a set of standards. You might as well choose to be happy regardless of the circumstances, and then, paradoxically, the circumstances tend to catch up. Have a happy week.