by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
December 13, 2009
IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Women's happiness is once again in the news.
It hardly seems likely - what with a ragged attempt at health care reform being sandbagged by a corporate Congress and a new war being proposed for Afghanistan - that people would make a fuss over whether women were "happy" or not. But it seems people do care, if only to sell a relatively old study and a new self-help book.
The study, released in April of 2009, is called "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." It's an analysis of General Social Survey data by Wharton's Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The self-help book is... well, we don't need to discuss it here.
If you think, for one moment, that you can find happiness by buying a book, then you shouldn't, for starters, be reading this column. I like to think that I preach common sense, and common sense would dictate that if a book could help, there wouldn't be any need for three or four thousand competing titles.
Jumping on the female unhappiness train you'll find, among others: a Time Magazine cover story; a host of bloggers; feminist icons who disdain feminism like Maureen Dowd and Arianna Huffington; and New York Times Magazine cover stories like "What is Female Desire?" and "Women Who Want to Want" ("More than by any other sexual problem - the elusiveness of orgasm, say, or pain during sex - women feel plagued by low desire.").
Why don't they write stories about what men want? Oh yeah, because men already have it all.
Measuring "happiness," or even "unhappiness," is next to impossible. The Constitution guarantees our right to pursue it, but it doesn't tell us how, or what to do with it if we find it, or how to keep it if we can get our hands on its wriggling form.
In my life, happiness comes and goes. It could depend on finding the best sentence to use in a story, or a good bottle of wine and the right person to share it with. Some days, I'm happy with a few hugs from my husband, or some purrs from our cat, Agatha. On days when my ailing mother is making progress, I'm jubilant. On days when she's in pain or feeling depressed, I'm miserable.
Happiness, in other words, is like love in a Bob Dylan song: "Falls on strangers, travels free." It's as ephemeral as a feather in a windstorm. We should rejoice when we have it, but go on with our ordinary lives when it wanes.
But that's just common sense. Start the media talking about a supposed lack of women's happiness and they immediately pounce on the wrong culprit: feminism.
"When women stepped into male-dominated realms, they put more demands - and stress - on themselves," Dowd wrote. "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."
Yes, Maureen, let's go back to the old days, as canonized in that great Tom Jones song, "She's A Lady."
"Well she's all you'd ever want/She's the kind they'd like to flaunt /and take to dinner/Well she always knows her place/She's got style, she's got grace/ She's a winner.../Well she's never in the way/Always something nice to say/ Oh what a blessing."
Three things feminism did for me: I could stop being forever "nice" and start trying to have my own needs met; I no longer felt compelled to be anybody's arm candy (a job I'm particularly ill-suited for); and as for knowing my place, well, my place is in all the newspapers and magazines that print my writing, and if you don't like it, then leave me alone.
For me, the go-to woman for feminism is the brilliant writer for The Nation, Katha Pollitt. She has the numbers on women's "unhappiness."
"The actual differences, which (the study's writers) present as enormous, are tiny," Pollitt writes. "As (University of Pennsylvania) professor and blogger Mark Liberman sets it out on Language Log, in 1972-74, 31.9 percent of men said they were very happy, 53 percent said they were pretty happy and 15.1 percent said they were not too happy; among women, the corresponding figures were 37 percent, 49.4 percent and 13.6 percent. For 2004, 2006 and 2008, 29.8 percent of men said they were very happy, 56.1 percent were pretty happy and 14 percent were not too happy; for women it was 31.2, 54.9 and 13.9... The percentage of 'not too happy' men has declined by 1.1 percent, and the percentage of such women has increased by a great big 0.3 percent. Three additional women in a thousand: that's what the fuss over 'women's unhappiness' is all about."
Another great feminist writer, Barbara Ehrenreich, has an even more convincing way of measuring happiness.
"As Stevenson and Wolfers report - somewhat sheepishly, we must imagine," Ehrenreich writes, "'contrary to the subjective well-being trends we document, female suicide rates have been falling, even as male suicide rates have remained roughly constant through most of our sample [1972-2006]. Women may get the blues; men are more likely to get a bullet through the temple."
Here's a thought. Maybe the pollsters are not asking the right questions.
Americans, as a whole, are angry, defensive, aggressive, resentful, insecure, underemployed and arrogant. We're the richest nation in the world and we're not good neighbors. You know the old adage that money doesn't buy happiness? Well, Americans are living proof.
Maybe the next round of surveys should ask why America is so unhappy.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a Vermont columnist and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.