Personal happiness is a subject that has long been of interest to me, so I was most intrigued when I read Elisa’s recent comment mentioning a study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by two economists from the University of Pennsylvania. According to their research, since the 1970s there has been a steady decline in women’s subjective perception of well-being — that is, we’re less happy than our sisters from the seventies. This is true of women of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances, all across the industrialised world, even though we have better employment opportunities and access to childcare, and more equality in our relationships and in society and politics than ever before. The researchers also found that in post-feminist America, men are happier than women.
Why? Are women driven to unhappiness by our own expectations or by the expectations of those around us?
A particularly interesting aspect of the study relates to girls at high school. The researchers suggest that young women are attaching greater importance to an increasing number of aspects of life, e.g. “being successful in my line of work”, “being able to find steady work”, “making a contribution to society”. In fact, the only domain that they attached less importance to was “finding purpose and meaning in my life”. Hmmm.
I think most women would agree that we are better off now than 30 years ago. But are we struggling to keep too many balls in play? And is this a challenge we genuinely relish or something we secretly bemoan? It’s not a simple problem and I don’t pretend to have a simple answer. However, in my own experience, I find that when I am able to keep my life as simple as possible and focus on what keeps me happy, I feel wonderfully centred and not overwhelmed. This has been called “leading an examined life”. When others judge the way we live, either through their behaviour or implied or explicit remarks, it becomes very difficult to remain authentic to ourselves. Trying to match others’ expectations is a defining characteristic of being a young woman, and is a behaviour that is likely to be repeated throughout adulthood. But imagine how much more at peace we could be if we learnt skills early in life that help us to identify the things that truly matter, that truly bring us happiness. This is something that we strive to impart in our Enlighten workshops.
To be happy, I believe we need to feel that we are good enough the way we are, and that we are free to make choices that work for us and our families.
Women can be hugely critical of other women. Whether it be girls and their friendship issues or women and their work/family issues, why do we feel the need to pass judgement? 60 Minutes ran a story a few weeks ago, Housewife Superstars, that really emphasised the divide between women on the issue of choosing to engage in paid work, or be a stay at home Mum. Watching this I could not help but think such stories only add to the “us and them” mentality…surely if the choice works for one woman and her family, then it is not up to us to the rest of us to judge?
I am going to make a conscious effort to accept other women and their choices, and celebrate diversity.
I am going to make a conscious effort to choose happiness.
For those interested, in Sydney in 2010 there will be a Happiness Conference – “Happiness and Its Causes” – with Naomi Wolf as keynote speaker.