The data have been collected and analyzed and the determination made: Women are less happy than they were 35 years ago, less happy than men, and the gap between men's and women's happiness is growing. The National Bureau of Economic Research released the report in May, and according to its researchers, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, this decline in happiness is pretty much true for women across the board in industrialized nations.
But women can be CEOs, politicians, and college presidents. They are better paid and have more visibility and opportunity than they did 30 years ago, so why are women less happy?
Stevenson and Wolfers speculate that perhaps it's the overall decrease in social cohesion, or increased anxiety and neuroticism. Or maybe now that women have multiple roles, they are satisfied in one role, but miserable in another, bringing down their overall sense of happiness. Maybe the women's movement raised expectations for women, and their lives don't measure up to those expectations.
I'm sitting in a window seat on a flight mulling this over, heading home after spending a day at Pine Rest in Grand Rapids talking to psychologists, counselors, social workers, and pastors who work with girls and women. Bob Hosack, my editor at Baker Books, extended the invitation believing my ideas from Growing Strong Daughters would be useful. I tossed my speculations about why women are less happy than we used to be into the mix. Here they are:
Our raised expectations have a fair bit to do with it. So does a form of individualism that redefined women's expectations in the aftermath of the feminist movement. (Important note: I call myself a feminist.) We are predisposed to fall into an individualism that is all about me, and women followed men into that particular pit rather readily, but with somewhat different consequences.
We bought the belief that we deserved an easy, happy life, and exerted the right to be all we could as we stretched toward self-fulfillment - even when it meant breaking commitments, leaving relationships, and walking away from the faith that grounded us. Our self-focused approach to life didn't make us happier, just lonelier.
I agree with the Enlightenment thinkers who believed that we needed to free all members of society to stretch toward their potential. I agree with the feminist movement that said that should include women. But individualism is only redemptive when the goal of achieving self-actualization is linked to doing others some bit of good. So I take care of myself, educate myself, and pursue opportunities not primarily because it will make me happy, but because I belong to a world that needs my best contribution. And in the contributing, I find a satisfaction that seeps into my soul. That gets unpacked in another of my books, The Contented Soul. The individualism we embraced instead was a sanctioned selfishness that frayed our social fabric and eroded our contentment.
"We belong not to ourselves, but to something bigger than ourselves." When I suggest this to my students, many of them cringe at the thought. We don't want to be obligated. But in belonging we relinquish the burden of needing to find our own happiness by controlling our destiny. Belonging to God is a great comfort. And while God loves us simply because we belong, and not because of what we accomplish, God did place us here as representatives to work toward making the world a better place. When we represent God on earth by working toward justice, extending mercy, being an advocate, an encourager, leader, supporter, creator, grower - might we find a happiness that eludes us?
The conversation is bigger than this space allows. May we ponder the question, think about where we went wrong, and find a way forward, given our opportunities and obligations.
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