Have you heard? Women aren’t happy. It seems that a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the University of Pennsylvania showed that even though men’s and women’s happiness levels have declined over the past few decades, women’s “subjective well-being” has declined “both absolutely and relatively to men.” Are you unhappy? I wasn’t. At least, not until I read about this study.
The study results were presented in a research paper by economists, one male and one female. One of the hypotheses about women’s unhappiness is that the women’s movement sold women a bill of goods. The explanation is that the women’s movement made women feel inadequate and thus unhappy because they couldn’t “have it all.” Apparently women’s expectations were raised faster than society was able to meet them so they were disappointed. Give me a break.
I can only imagine what these economists mean by “having it all.” Perhaps they think that having it all is a McMansion in the suburbs, a Mercedes in the garage, perfect kids, boundless energy, no wrinkles and a high-powered job that you love. You have to be nuts to think that that is what women want.
The economists who made these hypotheses are way off target. I started working in the 70s. The women’s movement said to me that women had every right to have the same opportunities as men and to be treated equally as men at work. That’s what I understood and still expect. The women’s movement said nothing to me about having it all—unless having it all meant being treated fairly at work. “Having it all” is a phony promise in the real world. There is no way anyone, male or female, can “have it all” unless they’re full time members of fantasyland.
The implication is that if you stop wanting it all you will be happier. What about if you never thought about wanting it all to start with? That makes the unhappiness finding mean something else.
I have a different take on why women aren’t happier now versus the 70s. Women exploded on to the work scene and truly believed that hard work and producing great results would help them get ahead. Instead, they found that unless you make the rules, there are some pretty petty, incompetent people in power making decisions. Some people get promoted that shouldn’t. They go on to make other people miserable (and unhappy.) Others expend all kinds of energy to master their political strategies instead of just getting the job done. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s disappointing to know that the wonderful challenge that work presents can be messed up so badly by some people. That would make anyone unhappy.
Let me see if I can try to make some of the unhappy women happier. First, you may subscribe to the economists’ assumption that you can have it all. You can’t. Why would you want to have “everything” as in stuff anyway? For one thing, you wouldn’t have the time to use all of it. Second, life and work, along with joy, is filled with disappointment. Get over it. Learn from the disappointments and move on. Third, if you have meaningful work, work with nice people, know what brings you joy so you make time for it, and have friends or family who love you, that’s as good as it gets.
I am particularly fond of Dale Carnegie’s definition of success. He said, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” I wish the researchers had told the women that before they took the survey. I’ll bet the researchers would have found a lot more happy women.