Women’s happiness isn’t so mysterious after all
As I mentioned in my interview with her at Reality Cast, Ariel Gore picked the right time to write a book about women and happiness. Gore didn’t start out writing Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness because of a study on women’s subjective happiness relative to men—and a media blitz that took a relatively small shift between men and women and used it to argue that women, being small-minded creatures, would be better off without feminism, freedom and quite possibly literacy and the right to vote. But she had the fortune to release her book during this blitz, and boy, is it a breath of fresh air. Because Gore is a logical, reasonable person who actually bothers to read the research about happiness, and unsurprisingly, the idea that having more freedom automatically makes women less happy is a thesis she engages and quickly rejects. The NY Times-style mainstream media tends to think women aren’t people, because women are the opposite of men in their reckoning, so if men are people, women can’t be. But Gore and all the psychologists she engages tend to think that women are people like men are, and subject to the same pressures and psychological cues. They think this mainly because of evidence and common sense.
Gore actually reads the U Penn study on women and happiness, apparently unlike all the media outlets trumpeting it, and discovers that the researchers are as skeptical of blaming feminism as she is. This is probably because the mountains of research on happiness that are out there—much of which Gore reads and reports on in this book—indicate that helplessness isn’t really very good for someone’s ability to be happy. After all, the guru of happiness studies is Martin Seligman, who decided to start studying what creates happiness in no small part because he was also the guy who discovered the learned helplessness response. Which is, he discovered that creatures who have a lack of control over their environment become anxious and basically give up. A multitude of other studies, including one involving nursing home patients given plants to take care of, have demonstrated something similar. The way Gore puts it is this: self-determination is an important part of being happy. Thus, feminism is crucial for women’s happiness, because it provides us control over our bodies, our decisions, our lives. We can end unhappy marriages, choose when to have children, have a measure of independence. These things alone cannot make you happy, but without these things, happiness is much harder to achieve, impossible in some cases, such as when dependence means inability to escape violence and abuse.
So why are women less happy than men? Gore has a lot of really interesting ideas that make a lot more sense, especially coupled with the research, than a bunch of anti-feminist concern trolling. And she makes a very convincing case, because she weaves the research in with interviews with other women about happiness and her own personal observations about herself and her own happiness. Since happiness is an extremely complicated subject, Gore’s personal observations about her own life and her own quest to be happy make a lot of the trends clear. For instance, on paper there seems to be a conflict between the fact that grateful people are happier, but self-determination is also necessary—after all, dependence should instill feelings of gratitude, right? (And to back up this contention is research showing men are less grateful, in part because they tend to downplay how much their well-being depends on others.) But put in the context of a human’s life, the complexity is easier to understand. Taking the time to be grateful for what you have to buck against demanding that you have the right to self-determination. For instance, you can take time to be grateful to your feminist foremothers for winning you the right to vote and control your own fertility.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Gore’s book is her struggle with the hokey aspects of positive psychology. Even though America has a culture of forceful friendliness and cheeriness—and women especially are required to be life’s cheerleaders—there’s also a streak of puritanism that inclines us to think that we’ll be more motivated to work harder if we take a grim view in certain aspects. And if you doubt this, look for instance at the American attitude towards physical fitness. We approach it with a dreadful, punishing attitude—you have to do this or you’ll be fat/sick/loser/die early. And people who take an upbeat approach, and talk about feeling better and being stronger and actually enjoying the process get cynical eyerolling. We find taking pleasure in these things to be uncool, somehow, which is one reason that our culture worships the hyper-thin bodies of anorexic models, because they are physical representations of choosing discipline over pleasure. Gore often struggles personally in this book with feeling unworthy of taking joy, or cynical about feeling grateful, or anxious at taking the time to “loaf”—do things with the express purpose of chilling out a little. I think we can all relate.
And because of this, she has a useful insight into the question of why women’s subjective happiness has fallen relative to men’s in the past 30 years or so. Higher expectations is part of it, but Gore is skeptical of writing it off solely to that, pointing out (rightfully) that higher expectations are an important factor in getting out there and fighting for yourself, an important part of happiness. Gore keeps coming back to the ideas of “flow” and “loafing” as two experiences one must regularly engage in order to be happy. Flow is the ability to get absorbed in a task that challenges but that you are the master of, and to lose track of time in it. Loafing is relaxing in an engaged way—not smoking a joint and zoning out in front of the TV, but taking a walk or even folding laundry in a way that you’re relaxed and really giving your mind some time to process stuff and go to creative places. Women have much less access to both these experiences than men. Women, Gore points out, are more interruptible. There’s a reason that women are less likely to start bands or blogs, are fewer in number in the world of gaming, or play sports as a hobby instead of grimly trying to drop 5 pounds on the treadmill. This is because there are dishes to do, and women have to do them. Feminism has given us many things, but the task of giving us the same freedom as men to flow or to loaf is far from over.
Part of it is that women don’t feel like we deserve these things as much as men, and grappling with this entitlement gap is one of the most interesting aspects of Gore’s book. Yes, of course there are women who overcome female training in the art of self-sacrifice, but the endless pressure of women to put anyone and everyone before themselves gets to us. In fact, the idea that women should do for others and not for ourselves is so ingrained that we’re expected to create obligations to others before we start to engage in self-care. Gore tells of listening to a woman who was taking her trash out, and a male neighbor asked why not make the kids do it. And the woman pointed out that she doesn’t have or want children. The man called her “selfish”. Logically, this makes no sense, since we use the word “selfish” to mean someone whose self-regard harms others, and being childless not only doesn’t do any harm to others, but arguably helps others by freeing up more resources. But if you think about the term as a sexist term, something that’s flung at women suspected of having entire minutes and perhaps hours to themselves to do things they want to do instead of endlessly serving others, then it makes sense. But Gore also wisely points out that women who want children are also shamed if they are perceived as putting their relationships to their children before any random demand that others make on them. If there’s a whiff about you that you might not be engaged in sacrifice at any point in time, then someone is going to be angry with you.
Mostly, Gore takes a refreshingly hard-headed approach to this task of understanding happiness. She accepts that a lot of what makes people happy is their own constitution—certainly, the research suggests happiness is a self-perpetuating thing, and naturally cheerful people tend to stay that way because they recover from stress more quickly—but also that it’s not hopeless, because there are things that make us less happy that are under our control. She looks at the research and listens to the experts instead of buying into hokey crap like “The Secret”. (Except for the baffling chapter on money, where she drifts from interesting discussions about how to get over money anxiety into talk about being “open” to money, which reeks of woo and is made worse by references to Inga Muscio, who I can’t stand, because she’s so hostile to science and rationality.) Gore talks about how spiritual people are likelier to be happy, but grasps that this is because they engage in habits that non-religious people can adopt without giving up their rationality. And most importantly, she exposes the lie that is “happily ever after”—at best, happiness is only possible as an ongoing project. The pursuit of the thing, it turns out, is the thing itself.