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BlueStateMan On October - 30 - 2009

monaKatha Polett…

Am I happy? What a stupid question. Do you mean happy as in content? Joyful? Hopeful? Relieved? Counting my blessings? Intent on absorbing work? Depending on your definition–and when you ask me, and who you are–I could give a dozen different answers. If you really want to know how I feel about my life, you would have to get to know me and ask me a whole lot of particular questions, which could not necessarily be boiled down to a single answer, and could certainly not be used to compare my happiness with someone else’s–because how can anyone know if what I mean by happiness is what that other person means? Keats was happy when he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale,” Eichmann was happy when he met his daily quota of murdered Jews, and I am happy to be living this year in Berlin. Only a pollster (or an economist) would conflate these things. In fact, only a pollster would think that people tell pollsters the truth.

    But why let quibbles stand in the way of a chance to attack feminism? The Huffington Post has sparked a national blatherfest with a series of posts by self-help guru Marcus Buckingham, which Arianna, in her trademark breathless fashion, blurbs as “the sad, shocking truth about how women are feeling.” Relying on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” an analysis of General Social Survey data by Wharton’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, Buckingham claims that women are less happy than they used to be, are less happy than men and become increasingly unhappy as they get older. These results, he claims, are independent of whether women are rich or poor, married or single, work or stay home. As he puts it, “though women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they’d like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.” Maureen Dowd concurs that the problem is that women have too many choices–”a paradox, indeed.” Huffington, Buckingham and Dowd are late to the party, actually: Ross Douthat devoted his New York Times column to the subject back in May. His culprit? Increased acceptance of single motherhood. Bring back “social stigma”–for women’s own good.

    Using a single statistic as a peg for your pet theory is a game we all can play. But before you leap in with your own, consider this: the actual differences, which Buckingham et al. present as enormous, are tiny. As U Penn 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. In other words, women today self-report a bit less manic joy than three decades ago, as do men, and a bit more modified rapture. But women still say they are happier than do men, contrary to journalistic rumor; and, most important, both in the 1970s and the 2000s, more than eight in ten women and men said they were very or fairly happy. 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.

    There are plenty of possible reasons why more people in recent years would report slightly less happiness than thirty years ago. Perhaps people are more lonely–all those hours in front of screens. Perhaps it’s the stressed-out economy, or over-the-top consumerism, or increased inequality, or having George Bush as president, or less leisure time. Or maybe Americans define happiness a bit differently from the way they did in 1972–or are simply becoming a bit more honest. After all, somebody is taking all those legal and illegal mood-elevating drugs, and going to all those therapists, and buying all those books about how to cheer up, like, um, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham. From the information given, there is no way to tell. Nor is it possible to say, simply by looking at the self-reports of men and women over time, what role feminism plays, if any. After all, women moving into higher education and the workforce is not the only thing that has happened in the past thirty years. If you want to play ridiculous numbers games, it could be that feminist gains have made women 10 percent happier, but something else–the fraying of the safety net, the turbo-charged misogyny of pop culture, reading too many self-help books–has canceled it out. You just can’t say. You can, however, safely dismiss those like Buckingham who pooh-pooh the argument that women’s “second shift” at home is to blame because men are doing more. OK, but last time I looked, more was not half. As Dr. Johnson said in another context, If you’re going to calculate, calculate.

    None of these possibilities have prevented readers from deluging the Times and the Huffington Post with tut-tuts and I-told-you-so’s to uppity women. But how happy were women, really, in that golden pre-feminist era? Culture critic Caryl Rivers pointed out to me that in 1973, studies showing that married women had the highest levels of psychiatric problems, including depression and anxiety, prompted sociologist Jessie Bernard to declare marriage a “health hazard for women.” If that’s no longer true, why not give feminism some credit?

    As for those still sky-high levels of good cheer, I’m skeptical. People answering yes to a pollster’s question about happiness is like saying, “Fine, thanks” when someone asks, “How are you?” If it actually represents a truthful and considered answer, either Americans have entirely given up following the news or the Prozac is working.


    20 Responses so far.

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    1. bitohistory says:

      What is Happiness? Can it be quantified? Can we quantify it in the lives many North Americans live ? My mother would tell me of how happy she was when her mother would pull her wagon, 10-15 miles, to get the family’s food “hand-out” during ” the depression”. Ah, food, simply food. Or when her uncle would would come home with his allotment from his work in the WPA. Food and heat!!
      Least we forget! eighty short years ago this week.
      What of other countries now and our our urban cites &”the REZ” school, a meal,water,Shelter, safety, a fire, a doctor, heathcare…….
      What is this, what we call “happiness”?

    2. BlueStateMan says:

      the best observation for me is that of Oscar Levant:

      “Happiness isn’t experienced, it’s remembered”.

    3. BigDogMom says:

      “Buckingham claims that women are less happy than they used to be, are less happy than men and become increasingly unhappy as they get older”

      As an “older women”, I think I am happier now than ever, there seems to be less of the self created stress in my life now. Been there, done that, no need to impress that person, no need to be seen as perfect, what’s a little dust and dog hair…you figure out, speaking for myself, my sisters and maybe a few of my girlfriends, all post or pari menopause, all this stuff really doesn’t matter in the end.

      For some of us older women, are children are grown, are hormones are gone or are in the midst of a raging battle, we now start to look inward….we take an inventory of who we are, where we’ve been, what’s worked and what hasn’t.Then we start to figure out what really give us joy…and it’s usually the simple things such as our family and friends, a good hair day, your jeans fitting, laughing with your girlfriends over something silly that you did, your goofy dog rolling in a big mud puddle having the time of his life, like mine did this morning…

      I think Arianna just hasn’t stopped long enough to listen to her inner self, maybe she’s scared too, I know a lot of women my age that refuse to do this, because in doing so you have to admit to yourself that you may have made some mistakes along the way, and a big one for many, is that you are aging…if she had, something else would have been written…

    4. Questinia says:

      1) Happiness has been defined as total absorption in what one’s doing to the point of losing one’s self.

      2) A perpetual state of happiness is not normal. A palette of feelings is the norm, but not spending too much time in the darker, muddier colors.

      3) Everyone has too many choices, not only women. The internet has abetted this.

      4) Tendency toward being happy is often a result of temperament, which is a trait one is born with. It is immutable.

      5) People are more alienated and may be happier in the absorption they find, like the soft addictions of watching TV or being on-line.

      I am a happy person. That is my default mode. Guess I’m lucky that way…..

      ……….but I’m happy with a real fucking edge.

    5. kesmarn says:

      Interesting question. I have a very good friend who--when this subject came up many years ago--jokingly said: “Well, the first thing you have to do is forget about being happy.”
      Much as I admire the Founding Fathers, I have to say that the “pursuit of happiness” is an odd idea.
      Happiness seems to be one of those elusive things that becomes more elusive, the harder you pursue it.
      Then, when you give it up and make the happiness of the people around you your priority, happiness sneaks up behind you and moves in.

      OT, but--I’m scheduled to work until late tonight, but there’s a chance I may be able to take on-call instead. If that happens, I’m hoping to be at the party here, while conscientiously avoiding HP. Either way, I hope a fun time awaits all.

    6. Kalima says:

      Happiness is a state of mind until our thoughts get in the way.

      • FeloniousMonk says:

        Back around 1970 I was talking to a classmate in high school whom I had grown up with. She was intelligent, and kind, and reeked of decency. I essentially told her that the fact that she didn’t think about the “big truths” is part of why she was able to maintain her happiness. Several years later in college, she came to me and said, “I didn’t understand it at the time, but I get it now”.

        Happiness is often about innocence. When we lose that innocence, we have to intellectualize our state into “we feel good” or something similar. Children are happy until the world intrudes on them with cold facts. And some of the “happy” adults I’ve met are in denial about the realities around them. That’s not pessimism, guys, just real.

        I find happiness in those simple, more innocent things, like flowers, and nature in general, and things that happen out of happenstance, not planning or design. Do I find satisfaction? Sometimes.

        • Grabamop says:

          So there is truth to ‘Ignorance is bliss’. I’d rather be unhappy and smart………

          • FeloniousMonk says:

            Did you ever deal with Jesus Freaks. Man, the rose colored glasses were thick and dark.

            The problem with a good analytical mind is that you can see from multiple directions and realize it isn’t simple, easy, nor always pleasant trying to go down the path to a better place. Unfortunately, most want all three in all aspects of their lives.

            But I believe that the better place can exist.

        • Questinia says:

          Happiness could be about innocence, but it could also be about re-connecting with the world in a child-like way.

    7. nicole473 says:

      It is a silly question.

      I can’t even really define “happiness”. And although I feel contentment sometimes, true “happiness” just might be reserved for the unaware, if “happiness” is defined as a general sense of well-being.

    8. KevenSeven says:

      Blissfully, I missed this one.

      And you missed a point I was making on another thread.

      I was saying that Afghanistan IS a law enforcement issue first. Not that it is neither a law enforcement nor military issue.

      And as my brother the CIA agent would say to you, even after you get the intelligence and build the case, you gotta have guys with guns who are able to go get the bad guys.

      The Texas Rangers are not going to go arrest bin Laden, should we ever again know where he is.

      • BlueStateMan says:

        It still doesn’t excuse your petulance, kev.

        We’re on the same side… but you DO occasionally remind me of the Darrow quip..

        “He doesn;t HAVE any ‘enemies’… it’s his FRIENDS that can’t stand him”.

    9. Kalima says:

      Personally I find this a very silly question and if someone were to ask me, I wouldn’t be able to answer with a simple yes or no either.

      For most people, happiness is such a fleeting thing and very different for all of us because our needs are not the same. I have never met another person who claimed that they were happy most of the time and I doubt I ever will.

      Happiness is a difficult emotion to describe and I rarely use, it blows into my life like a gentle breeze and then is gone. I would rather say that there are times that I feel content and leave it there.

    10. KQuark says:

      The Nation has some excellent articles and this is one of them for sure.

      Unless you face catastrophically extremely sad or traumatic events in your life, I personally think people’s happiness is within your own being. I’ve had many negative health emergencies and conditions in my life but I still remain positive and content most of the time. There is also a surface happiness that people seek who are not really happy inside leading to a huge part of our society seeking instant gratification. The worst thing our corporate controlled society has done is break up any sense of community. There was a day when people could choose a place where they wanted to live their lives instead of moving were the jobs are.

      Another way greed has infected society is the advent of the unreasonable consumer culture. We have simply lost sight in most cases of what is a material need and what is a want. For example if a young adult considers buying a car every couple of years a need, holding on to their five year old care becomes unsatisfying to them. I guess a more current example is a cell phone subscriber that needs the best new bells and whistles cell phone every year or two.

      As far as woman felt then and now I can’t really speak to that because I would not presume to walk in someone elses shoes.

      BTW Douthat is completely wrong. It’s not single parenthood that is the problem in society it’s the fact that working wages have been so anemic since the Raygun years that far too often two parents need to work to afford to raise children. My mother worked about half the time when I was growing up but she never HAD to work like she would know to live in the same home in the same neighborhood I grew up.

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