Apparently, we’re less happy than our mothers and grandmothers. REALLY?

Some recent US research apparently shows that women’s happiness is declining. The idea of that makes me unhappy. See the corners of my mouth turning down? Unhappy face. On The Huffington Post website, a guy called Marcus Buckingham who is billed as a “leading expert in personal strengths and bestselling author” writes….

Each year since 1972, the United States General Social Survey has asked men and women: “How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?” This survey includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status–1,500 per year for a total of almost 50,000 individuals thus far–and so it gives us a most reliable picture of what’s happened to men’s and women’s happiness over the last few decades.

As you can imagine, a survey this massive generates a multitude of findings but here are the two most important discoveries:

1. Over the last few decades, women, in comparison to men, have become less happy with their lives.

2. As women get older, they get sadder.

Since 1972, women’s overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were forty years ago, and relative to men. You find this drop in happiness in women regardless of whether they have kids, how many kids they have, how much money they make, how healthy they are, what job they hold, whether they are married, single or divorced, how old they are, or what race they are.


`”Hey,” you might say. “Life’s tough. Deal with it.” And of course, you’d be right. Life is not designed with anyone’s happiness in mind, and it has the disconcerting habit of not rewarding the good as much as we’d expect, of punishing the wicked less vigorously than we’d like, and even, on occasion, of getting the two completely mixed up.

Even so, only the most wasted of cynics would deny that something’s got to give. Not only is this “tough life” significantly tougher on women than it is on men, but the advances of the last 40 years were supposed to have changed things for the better. And not just for womankind, but for each individual woman. The hard-won rights, opportunities, and advantages were supposed to have netted women more than just another burdensome role to play–“you at work.” They were supposed to have fostered in each woman feelings of fulfillment and happiness, and even, for the special few, the sustained thrill of living of an authentic life.

This hasn’t happened. Over the last 40 years or so, life is not trending toward more fulfillment for women; life is, in most ways we can measure, becoming more draining instead. To use Thomas Jefferson’s words, though women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they’d like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.”

Columnist and former US Cosmo and US Weekly Editor Bonnie Fuller wrote a rebuttal to this research and its interpretation entitled “Women’s Declining Happiness: That’s A Crock!”. In part, she wrote….

“I don’t care that Marcus Buckingham asserted in his recent post “What’s Happening to Women’s Happiness” that women today are in the middle of a misery epidemic. He’s dead wrong — women today are NOT unhappier than they were 40, 50 or 60 years ago.

I’ve talked to many, many women of my mother’s generation. Women who spent their young adult years in the 1950s and 60s. They were the generation raised under traditional restraints and constraints. Few went to college, almost all married young, placing their husband’s needs and ambitions above their own. And they couldn’t wait to raise their own daughters to be feminists and throw off the shackles of their mothers’ existence.

….No, they were not a happy crowd back then. My mother told me that the secret no one wanted to talk about in the supposedly idyllic world of 60’s suburban housewives–they were bored out of their frigging minds. On our own little quiet crescent of a street in the suburbia where I grew up, bored silly housewives turned to alcohol and affairs, that’s how happy they were. These women yearned to have a broader, more varied world, they yearned to do more than raise children, maintain perfect households, and wait for their husbands to come home.

Now, I agree that us women today are not living in the happiest of times either. We’re financially insecure, stressed out and tired, as we juggle jobs and families. We’re beset by responsibilities and decision making. But in the scheme of life, that’s not really a bad thing. Women today at least are very actively participating in the decisions that will affect their lives versus being treated like the chattel that they were mere generations ago. I can assure you that in the areas of the world–parts of India, Africa and the Middle East–where women are still treated like chattel, they are miserable.

What Buckingham seems to be missing is that people–men and women–are always happier when they feel in control of their own lives. There is no way that when women were considered second class citizens–a mere 40 or more years ago–that they could have been blissful. Women were infantilized–their fathers and husbands made the decisions that women today take for granted–whether they could go to college, buy a dress, drive a car, have a career, go out with “the girls.”

My grandfather didn’t believe a woman should go to college–so my mother didn’t–and she never got over it nor forgave him. During her marriage, she couldn’t even get a new dress for herself or her daughters unless my father approved. But he didn’t require her permission to buy a suit.

What women have learned in recent generations is that as our sex has become “adult,” we have had to take on the responsibilities that come with adulthood. For some women, that may lead to a certain nostalgia for a past where life for women was simpler — a whole lot simpler — yes, because they were treated like they were simple-minded.

So Marcus Buckingham, whether it’s our sexual, work or love lives, women have far more control over these than they did 40 or more years ago. And that means that women are happier, whether they consciously realize it or not!”


Do you agree with this? I think I do. Whether we do consciously realise it or not, and as stressful as our choices can inherently be, at least we HAVE choices – an infinite amount more choices than our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

I also think our expectations for happiness are far higher with every
generation. I know Gen Y look at Gen X and Boomers and think we’re a pack of sad
losers half the time and wonder why the hell we don’t chase our own
personal happiness more aggressively. They may be right.

Also, sometimes I think it’s hard to compare ourselves to previous generations because we have so many more avenues, outlets and opportunities to bitch vent express ourselves. Our mothers didn’t have websites like this one. And our grandmothers or great-grandmothers probably had to wear gloves when they left the house.

I believe it’s a good thing to have high expectations for happiness. Heaven forbid we convince ourselves that a mediocre existence is all we can aim for. But is there unhappiness or perhaps stress inherent in all the choices and control (well, compared to our mothers and grandmothers) we have as women today?

How happy are you with your lot? Is our generation happier than previous ones? Or is all this happiness talk a crock? Do you think it’s a huge indulgence to crap on about happiness when past generations just Got On With It?

That’s a lot of questions. I think I need a lie down.


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