What’s Making Women Unhappy?

And can you really have “too” many choices?

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Women are more depressed and anxious than men.


Because we don’t make as much money as men do, researchers say. According to the study:

As a woman who returned to work full time after divorcing (I’d always worked part time when my two boys were young, an arrangement my then-husband and I agreed to) in an industry that doesn’t pay much to begin with (journalism), and who was sharing child custody 50–50, you bet I was anxious. And my pay was much lower than my male counterparts at the time. I look back at those days and wonder how I did it. Well, I bounced a lot of checks at first. That’s one way to survive, but not one I’d recommend.

‘Too’ many choices?

Women tend to be more prone to depression anyway, and according to one study, our happiness level plummets when we turn 48. Still, as Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote a few years ago in their study “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” women have become steadily unhappier since 1972. So, of course many blamed feminism and the fact that women have lots of choices nowadays.

Women ourselves are also questioning whether our choices are truly making us happy. In Jen Doll’s essay “The Burden of Choice: What it Means to Be a Modern American Female” last year, the “wealthy, white, single, heterosexual, childless” 39-year-old fretted about always wanting more — marriage, kids — and having to live with so many gray areas.

I know choice can be paralyzing, but I sure am glad we have choices. In many ways, we have more than men do. Men are still expected to be the breadwinner, or at the very least hold his own, which has set them up for unhealthy lifestyles, including suicide, according to Barbara Ehrenreich in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.

But Ehrenreich has some problems with the Stevenson-Wolfers data:

Still, the authors point out that “the relative decline in women’s well-being … holds for both working and stay-at-home mothers, for those married and divorced, for the old and the young, and across the education distribution” — as well as for moms, the unmarried and the childfree.

So basically, all of us gals.

Given that, I can see that a huge swath of society would feel a whole lot better if women would just get with the program like their moms did — marry, stay at home and manage the kids while bringing in some income. Look at how they talk about us when we don’t. According to societal stereotypes, single women can’t possibly be happy solo; finding a partner is what we really want. Women who don’t want kids are seen as suspect and somewhat tragic figures. But the stereotypes don’t bode well for married women either — wives withhold sex, marry just because we know if we divorce we’ll get the house and kids, and are just plain miserable no matter what their hubby does.Mothers don’t get off any easier; the exaltation of motherhood shames and blames the ones who realize after the fact that they don’t want to be moms or can’t be good ones. Meanwhile, single moms are just a problem, period.

Still, I have to question — how do we define happiness, does everyone have the same definition of it and is happiness a static thing?

What’s happiness anyway?

Just like we get stuck on defining love, commitment and a “real marriage,” so, too, do we get stuck trying to define happiness, which makes any attempt to study it seem specious.

Then I stumbled upon an old post on the Femagination blog, The Happiness Index. The blogger, referencing the Stevenson-Wolfers study and the resulting op-eds, also questions just what we are talking about when we talk about happiness. So, she created what she calls the Happiness Index. It lists several factors that can contribute to “a sense of well-being (or the reverse)” and asks women to rate each factor on a scale from 1 (very unhappy) to 5 (very happy):

  1. If you are in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  2. If you are not in a committed relationship, how do you feel about it?
  3. How do you feel about your marital status (single, divorced, married)? (Indicate what your status is.)
  4. How do you feel about being a parent, if you are one?
  5. If you are not a parent, how do you feel about being childless?
  6. If you have a career outside of your parenting and household duties, how do you feel about it?
  7. How do you feel about the work you do outside of the home?
  8. How do you feel about the work you do inside of the home?
  9. How do you feel about how appreciated you are (by partner, child(ren), friends, employer, co-workers)? (Answer for each category.)
  10. How do you feel about your economic status?
  11. How do you feel about where you live (the neighborhood, city, country or your actual home)?
  12. If you have a religious affiliation or a spiritual life, how happy are you with either/both?
  13. How happy are you with the part politics and government play in your life?
  14. No matter what you do, how do you feel about the amount of autonomy you have? (Do you wish you had more or less?)
  15. What is your attitude about your looks?
  16. Are you happy with how you are aging?
  17. How do you feel about your health?
  18. How do you feel about your sex life?

Then, add up your scores. The higher the score, she says, the happier you are and vice versa.

At least in this particular moment. It’s all subject to change; if I took the test right before the discovery of my then-husband’s affair, when I sensed something was wrong but couldn’t quite put my finger on it, the answers would look radically different than they would now, 12 years out of a divorce with a career I love, a published book, a great group of longtime friends, a wonderful partner, a good relationship with my kids’ dad and the joy of seeing how my two sons have turned into wonderful young men. I am really happy — well, with an exception.

I’m still not happy about my pay, which is likely still lower than my male counterparts. And, given the shape of journalism, I’ll never see a raise again. This is it.

While I’m no longer bouncing checks, I have had to get creative to find ways to better support myself and my kids until the last one’s out of college.

I’m not depressed about it nor am I anxious anymore. But I’m not happy about it, and — crap — that’s going to skew my whole Happiness Index!

Want to define what will make your marriage happy? Learn how by ordering The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels on Amazon, and, while you’re at it, follow TNID on Twitter and Facebook.

Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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