Speaking of Women's Rights: On Real Choices and Happiness

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Real Choices and Happiness

The blogs are a-buzz about a study that shows that women are less happy than they were 40 years ago, compared with men, and that as women get older, they get sadder. There’s always a certain danger to generalizing on such matters, as it often leads to harmful stereotyping. These alarmist headlines – Women Are More and More Unhappy! – smack of age-old attempts to tie women to mental illness, depression, hysteria, and the like (a connection demonstrated by the very term “hysteria” – derived from the word “uterus”).

Moreover, at a surface level, these findings seem a paradox, as one paper’s title suggests (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”). Don’t women have more options today than 40 years ago? Don’t we get wiser as we get older?

The author who stirred up this recent firestorm dismisses each of the following as possible causes for women’s declining happiness: (1) longer working hours, (2) gender stereotyping, and (3) the “second shift” (the unpaid domestic work) – because, in short, all of these have improved for women over the years. While somewhat coy about his actual theory (no doubt so that you will buy his book), he does point to the inherent stressfulness of having choices as part of the cause, along with the premium our culture places on youth and looks.

I’m intrigued by this suggestion that choice – specifically more choices – breeds unhappiness. Also intriguing is the data that “[a]cross the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.” (Not really surprisingly, the author does also note that there are very few people who would tell her they wish they hadn’t had kids.) Of course, the word "choice" is particularly fraught with meaning in the context of discussing family planning.

Regardless of how stressful it can be to make choices, the availability of meaningful choices surely must make a difference. The source study includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status. But even these characteristics (education, income, marital status) are the effects of choices – choices that are not necessarily freely made or equally available to all.

What would this study show if all women were empowered to make, and supported in making, informed choices? If, instead of trying simply to curb teen pregnancy, we gave young women the knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that work best for them (as the Latina Institute for Reproductive Health suggests)? If we didn’t have the power dynamics that result in domestic violence? If we had schools and workplaces that were free of discrimination and harassment? If senior women could age gracefully in financial security?

Then all women might truly be able to exercise that most cherished democratic right: the pursuit of happiness.