There was a great article in the New York Post by Mandy Stadtmiller yesterday about some recent research on happiness. No one really talks much about the concept of happiness until someone publishes a study about just how little of it we have. This study was especially difficult to swallow, because it showed that women’s happiness has been in a steady decline for the last 35 years, whereas men’s happiness has been increasing.
Stadtmiller reviews all the possible reasons why this may be happening. First, there’s the “Rush Limbaugh Theory” that women’s lib was actually bad for women. It’s a sexy little theory for conservatives to flaunt, because in it, women realize that they may have bitten off more than they can chew, rights-wise. Women are a bit like Tobey Maguire in the first Spiderman movie, right after he realizes that he should be doing more with his brand new superpowers than just wrestling for cash. Instead, he should be stopping all crime in the world. That’s quite a jump in expectations, especially if you tweak it so that Tobey is still expected to wrestle every day and be at the top of his game there, on top of doing the whole world-saving thing. And poor Spidey still has no one to tag in the wrestling ring if all the expectations get to be too much for him. He’s got to handle both by himself.
The other theories of why women are less happy now are not explanations as much as thoughts about the way men and women process their emotions. Perhaps men are less aware of their own emotional state and just plug along burning themselves at both ends until they drop dead of a heart attack at 45, whereas women go into that good night fully and completely aware of the fact that they are becoming clichéd burned-out career women. So men aren’t happier really, just blissfully unaware of their own misery. Or perhaps happiness is a long-dead dream that shouldn’t even be considered a goal because it’s so impossible. Maybe expecting women to be happy on top of being good mothers, amazing cooks, perfect wives, and badass business mavens is just one more lofty goal that we’ll never reach, and we’re torturing ourselves by adding it to the plate.
Dear god, what happened to us? If actual, tangible things, like a partner, a successful career, and perfect hair seem so unattainable, why on earth did we start making the idea of joy so beyond our reach? Happiness is a concept, meaning that it is defined differently by everyone, and yet we all have this vague and snarky definition of “happy” as a place where people just giggle and beam at strangers whilst skipping down the street in a perfect-fitting summer dress. That place doesn’t exist, and the more we place it on a pedestal, the more miserable we become. But this shouldn’t upset us. Happiness isn’t a destination; it’s a tiny little present you give yourself daily. So perhaps the real reason women are less happy now is that their definitions of happiness are becoming too complex.
Think about the things that make you smile. Watching America’s Funniest Videos. Getting an email full of ridiculous cat pictures. Hearing your best friend giggle. Getting coffee and a bagel at the coffee cart where the guy flirts with you shamelessly. Finishing a Twix bar and knowing there’s another one left. Going to a pet store/animal shelter to pet some animals. Dancing to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack alone in your house. Farting in an elevator as you’re walking out. Finishing the dishes. These things all sound simple and stupid, but who says that happiness is any more complicated than that? It’s a lot easier to pencil in five minutes in your schedule to watch clips from AFV than to try to plan a week vacation that is supposed to actualize you. All of the ideas of why women are less happy are probably accurate, but explanations don’t matter when you still feel miserable and burnt out all the time. Start adjusting your own ideas of what happiness actually means to you, keep a list of things that make you smile, and do those things. They’ll be your buoys in an ocean of reality, and they will keep you afloat.