Much is made about happiness in pop culture and media. We’ve become a society affixed on the idea that it isn’t just our prerogative, but our right, and that anything less than outstanding and endless satisfaction of whatever expectations we’ve collected along the way is a real and serious crisis.
Women in particular are deemed the unhappier gender, particularly those in my demographic. Careful – I’m about to admit a startling fact: I’m a middle-aged woman, mother of two young kids, (What can I say, my eggs lasted long enough to survive my youth) which means a two-fisted slam against joy: one for being in my 40s, the least happy time in an American woman’s life according to research. The other bitch slap is from parenting.
Based on data collected over the past 40 years, women are reporting decreasing levels of happiness, not just versus their female counterparts from the past, but also in general as they age. In fact, where teenage girls once were as happy as teenage boys, they now start their adult lives less so. But why?
Societal and self-expectations?
One reason is our society’s increased obsession with youth and standards of beauty that are out of reach for most. This creates a sense of alienation and of feeling invisible. It also turns out women are harder on themselves than men; we focus on our flaws more than our strengths.
Marcus Buckingham, a happiness guru who studied this trend found that “since women, as a group, believe that success flows from drilling down into their weaknesses, and since, as has happened to women over the last 40 years, they’ve gradually acquired more and more domains in which they are supposed to succeed, a researcher would expect to see women characterizing themselves more and more by who they aren’t, becoming more and more self-critical, and more aware of their flaws and failings, all of which might well accelerate these dissatisfaction trend-lines.”
As our expectations skyrocket, our sense of personal satisfaction declines. We just can’t keep up with the images of perfection surrounding us, overlook our strengths and magnify every last damn hair out of place, metaphorically speaking, in our lives.
It takes a tremendous amount of work, being the architect of a child’s character; all while harboring worries that previous generations did not have to face (environmental, political, social, sexual and technological pressures. All in a day’s work. Arg!). And it turns out we may be glamorizing parenting, you know, like swallowing that bitter pill with a spoonful of sugar. I know some women who seem perfectly content to cater to their babes. Certainly, children give lives meaning and purpose, but can I honestly say that motherhood guarantees happiness?
Ask me that question after I have just one day free of complaints, spilt milk, requests made in high whiny voices, big brother pushing little sister who has already figured out by age three how to push his triggers. ‘I ‘noyying him,’ she admits with her eyes grinning bright. Yeah, it sounds as cute as when she explains, that “I tempered,” after a full-blown body-slammed on the ground explosion. Ever try to peel a toddler off the floor in the midst of a storm?
Feminism and the paradox of choice?
Maureen Dowd questioned whether feminism benefited men more than women. She writes, “When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”
Has feminism opened up so many opportunities that women are now faced with too much? If this is so, then why aren’t men also reporting more distress? Their choices have increased as much over the past two generations, and yet they report increased happiness.
Perhaps it is our reactions to these choices, particularly when something goes wrong. According to Ms. Dowd, women, “tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work and pop far more antidepressants.” Can it be that we are sad because we have too much to do, too much to chose from, and too many responsibilities? Or is the answer something else?
And then there is something a guy with some years on him wrote to me in a private correspondence. “Women are sadder,” he said, “because deep down, men are shallower.’ Here’s the thing though: Man-bashing isn’t my forte. I think the whole battle of the sexes is a maladaptive consequence of a social-political-religious paradigm that has restricted our full expressions and experiences of love and self-actualization.
With that mouthful said, I’m fully intrigued by what’s going on in our simultaneously hyper-masculinized (as in hardcore pornification, a whole other blog, someday…) and de-masculinized culture (as in let’s blame men for all our problems, and have you looked at fashion magazines lately? More and more of the models are androgynous and pretty).
All fodder for another blog if I ever get the time. For now, I’m just wondering why happiness declines for women in their middle years. Taking blame out of the scenario, acknowledging the challenges of family, work and parenting, and just dealing with the topic frankly, I’m hoping you’ll tell me your thoughts on who or what is at the crux of this reported collective sadness?
©2010-2011 www.TinamarieBernard.com; PARTIAL reposts only permitted with link back to original article.