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March 07, 2006

The Elusive Bluebird Of Happiness

Not long ago, I mused about how our expectations about life play into our general sense of satisfaction and why, since conservatives generally don't expect things to be fair, they often end up happier. Now a new study indicates that the same principle operates against women who passionately desire equality with men:

In The Feminine Mystique, the late Betty Friedan attributed the malaise of married women largely to traditionalist marriages in which wives ran the home and men did the bread-winning. Her book helped spark the sexual revolution of the 1970s and fueled the notion that egalitarian partnerships—where both partners have domestic responsibilities and pursue jobs—would make wives happier. Last week, two sociologists at the University of Virginia published an exhaustive study of marital happiness among women that challenges this assumption. Stay-at-home wives, according to the authors, are more content than their working counterparts. And happiness, they found, has less to do with division of labor than with the level of commitment and "emotional work" men contribute (or are perceived to contribute). But the most interesting data may be that the women who strongly identify as progressive—the 15 percent who agree most with feminist ideals—have a harder time being happy than their peers, according to evidence that has been provided exclusively to Slate. Feminist ideals, not domestic duties, seem to be what make wives morose. Progressive married women—who should be enjoying some or all of the fruits that Freidan lobbied for—are less happy, it would appear, than women who live as if Friedan never existed.

As I enter the second half of my life, more and more I find myself traveling back in time. Despite the incontrovertible evidence of my bathroom mirror I don't feel much different than that girl of sixteen. In many ways my life is starting to parallel those earlier days.

Freed of childraising duties, my weekdays and weekends are my own. I have both money and freedom - I can take off and have a beer at a downtown watering hole or listen to a local band whenever I want to. I can afford to buy those to-die-for clothes I passed up for years while I was raising kids, and if I'm not always aware of the latest and greatest trend, my son will force me to shamefacedly shed my filthy lucre in some overpriced Georgetown establishment. I navigate through my present with a strange sense of blissful unreality.

While sitting in a little hole in the wall on Sunday allowing the subtlely snarky waiter to pad my bar tab with a plentiful supply of double Kahluas on the rocks, I gazed out the window onto the busy street. We'd been talking about buying a car. Across the way, a couple came out of one of the tony boutiques that line the street and got into his silver Mercedes coupe. They were about ten years older but still in great shape. Clad in jeans and leather jackets, they looked like they had it all: plenty of money, looks, leisure, that big enchilada we call 'the good life'. I continued to watch them, one eyebrow slightly raised. The spousal unit, eyeing them speculatively, emitted an amused chuckle and said, "Hey... that could be us."

"Yeah, babe", I replied. "Everything but the car."

This is what I longed for, all those years when I was chasing rugrats. So, am I happy? That is a question I often ask myself. And I am often confronted with the disturbing answer: yes, and no. In some ways I am far more fulfilled than I was fifteen years ago. But I am definitely less content, and therein lies an interesting tale.

Back to the study for a moment:

...the data are nonetheless worth pausing over, especially if, like me, you've long subscribed to the view that so-called companionate couples have the best chance at sustaining a happy partnership. Among all the married women surveyed, 52 percent of homemakers considered themselves very happy. Yet only 45 percent of the most progressive-minded homemakers considered themselves happy. This might not seem surprising—presumably, many progressive women prefer to work than stay at home. But the difference in happiness persists even among working wives. Forty-one percent of all the working wives surveyed said they were happy, compared with 38 percent of the progressive working wives. The same was the case when it came to earnings. Forty-two percent of wives who earned one-third or more of the couple's income reported being happy, compared with 34 percent of progressive women in the same position. Perhaps the progressive women had hoped to earn more. But they were less happy than their peers about being a primary breadwinner—though you might expect the opposite. Across the board, progressive women are less likely to feel content, whether they are working or at home, and no matter how much they are making.

Interesting, no? But wait: there's more. You might think, because it's logical, that some of this unhappiness might have something to do with the housework gap (after all, even in two-career households, women still do about 70% of the housework on average). I know I do, even though both my husband and I work long hours. I just don't get my pantyhose all in a knot over it. But this turns out not to be the explanation either, or at least not all of it:

The authors found that equal division of labor seems not to correlate strongly with happiness, either.) What is left out of both lines of argument are the strange ways that rising expectations play into happiness. The sexual revolution tried to free women and men from set-in-stone roles. But the irony turns out to be that having a degree of certainty about what you want (and being in a peer group that feels the same way) is helpful in making people happy. Having more choices about what you want makes you less likely to be happy with whatever choice you end up settling on. Choosing among six brands of jam is easy. But consumers presented with 24 types often leave the supermarket without making a purchase. In much the same way, the more you scrutinize a relationship, the more likely you are to find fault with it. The study's authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages. Meanwhile, traditionalist women—a significant portion of whom are Christian—expect less emotional work from their husbands, Wilcox and Nock speculate, which makes it easier for them to shake off frustrations, and less likely to nag.

Now there are a couple of home truths that I think women don't really want to face. When we're not happy, whose fault is it, really? I get aggravated with the feminist retort to practical observations that many of their prescriptions for Gender Paradise are missing the mark. Invariably when social scientists or conservatives point out that feminism has made many women demonstrably unhappy, they accuse their critics of 'blaming the victim'. The apt reponse to this, unfortunately, is to be found in a book I read almost thirty years ago but have never forgotten, about the life of Aspasia of Miletus. Aspasia is one of two women (Elizabeth I of England is the other) who fascinated me when I was a girl. I could not get enough of reading about either of them.

What riveted me in the lives of both Aspasia and Elizabeth was that they were both women of exceptional scope trying to forge a path for themselves in a world they did not create; one which would never afford them equal status regardless of their merits. I sought in their lives a way to be happy in my own.

They took two very different paths. Elizabeth, though she made ruthless use of her feminity as it suited her purpose, ruthlessly closed off for herself all possibility of living life as a woman. There is a universe of pain in that choice: one that betokens either a truly formidable strength of will or a vulnerability that has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. I have always been haunted by her words on the sailing of the Spanish Armada:

"I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too".

One cannot look at Elizabeth's life without amazement. She lived, and dared, greatly. And yet she gave up much that she greatly desired. Was her life more full, wielding absolute power in her own right as she did, than Aspasia's (who, if the accounts are to be believed, was a tremendous balancer: exercising enormous influence over not just Pericles but contemporary philosophers like Socrates and Xenophon in addition to founding a school for girls and giving birth to a son). She refused to give up her womanhood, but the price was that she only tasted power at second-hand. Life is, as I am always observing, full of tradeoffs. I am likewise haunted by a fictional quote from the novel about Aspasia's life.

In it, Pericles, the first citizen of Athens and her lover, somewhat bemusedly calls Aspasia a contentious woman and wishes out loud for a little peace in his golden years. Her gentle but nonetheless tart riposte follows him out of the room:

"Peace is for the graveyard, my love."

This line has often popped into my mind when the spousal unit and I are having one of our epic 'discussions', or when the winds of discontent blow once again through my life like a spring storm, washing away all the carefully-planned expectation management rationales I habitually construct to keep my wayward thoughts in line with reality.

Life is not always what we wish it would be, but if we are not satisfied, who is to blame? Is perfect content a means, or an end in itself? Do we really want to spend all our days chasing that elusive bluebird of happiness? Or will we end up, as the country song says, chasing it right up our own noses?

Sometimes I think it's more a question of finding the right balance: of deciding how much unhappiness we can tolerate in order to gain a measure of freedom. I'm not sure perfect freedom and perfect contentment are entirely compatible concepts. The one thing I do know is that if we make having it all the measure of happiness, we will never get catch that annoying little bird.

Sometimes being moderately happy with the bird in our hand is worth that entire flock we see perched in the silver Mercedes across the street. Or maybe I'm just fooling myself.

Posted by Cassandra at March 7, 2006 06:17 AM


I've just finished reading this post with much interest. I'm now 60 years old and I've learned that chasing contentment or happiness or peace of mind is, largely, a wasted effort. If you live your life and give of yourself it will come to you, unbidden. I'm retired from the army. I've suffered a heart attack and bouts with cancer. I'm estranged from my own children but am called "grandpa" by my 3rd wife's grandchildren. I pour my heart into being that grandfather figure that all children want. That's my job now. I know that I was probably pretty much a dick when I was younger... but so was my own grandfather. I've found papers and letters in my mother's house that attest to his bad behavior. But he was a great grandfather to me and my brother. He had a stroke and died back in '88. He could barely speak but he managed to recognize me and say my name before he died. He was content that I was there. And that, I guess, is all I want from this life too. To matter to these children, to be a quiet role model. To be remembered as someone who was there.

Posted by: snuffyny [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 10:43 AM

Heh. Farkin' A, wench. Now I have to write the post that's been bouncing around in my head.

Complementary thinkers, we.

Argghhh! Like I don't have too many choices already!


Posted by: John of Argghhh! [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 10:47 AM

As "they" say:

Life - it's not the destination; it's the journey.

Posted by: fdcol63 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 10:49 AM

I am inclined to agree with you, sir.

And I wish you joy :) I find in my own life that contentment is more often to be found in small things than large ones, and though I still enjoy chasing my own tail every now and then, what I keep coming back to is that moment each night just before I fall asleep when I lay my head on my husband's chest and listen to his heart beat in the stillness of the night, and know that, secure in his arms, all is right with my world whatever may have gone on during the day.

There is a song I think of every now and then:

It's the stuff that dreams are made of
The slow and steady fire

It's the stuff that dreams are made of
It's your heart and soul's desire...

It's still true.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 10:51 AM

...and then there are still those Roman candle moments too. Must be why I married the big lug :)

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 10:53 AM

Personally, I prefer chasing the LG's tail every now and then. :©)

I've got a great paraphrase from a story that Zig Ziglar tells. It's a little long though. But it's essentially what your saying.

"I'll be happy then" is a never ending goal. Everytime you get there you find that someone somewhere has more, makes more, does more, and the goal posts move. "I'll be happy when..." WHEN?!?!?!

Happiness is between your ears, not a new car, house, vacation. Those things are fun and I recommend you do them, but they ain't happiness. As a society we have confused the two. The LG makes me happier than anything in the world, but when we're having those "Epic Discussions" she ain't very fun.

Posted by: Masked Menace© [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 11:18 AM

No, I know what you mean :)

I'm often surprised at how unhappy the spousal unit and I can manage to make each other in a very short time. We can go from 0 to 60 in a millisecond. It scares me sometimes, but then I suppose that is the price you pay for the pretty fireworks on the 4th of July...

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 11:34 AM

> The Elusive Bluebird Of Happiness

LOL. I first misread that as:
"The Elusive BlueBEARD Of Happiness".

Changes the meaning somewhat, methinks....

Posted by: OBloodyHell [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 12:09 PM

> (after all, even in two-career households, women still do about 70% of the housework on average)

If I make a male observation about this, it's because about 30% of what represents "housework" is something only women think is worthwhile or important. Guys couldn't give a rat's ass.

As a result of this, it's not surprising that women wind up doing a good chunk of stuff which they, as women, feel is important and worthwhile but which guys don't care about.

I'm not making the sexist claim that it's not important -- I'm saying it's sexist to insist that what is important to women *should* be equally important to men -- just because women think it should be.

If women think the house is too dirty while a guy thinks it's "clean enough... I'm watching the game." -- why should it be inherently RIGHT that the women's perspective should overrule the man's?

In a good relationship, there needs to be a certain measure of tit-for-tat on this sort of thing. Guys DO need to contribute, sometimes, even when they don't want to. Likewise, women should grasp that they don't always get what THEY want, either -- unless they are prepared to go the extra mile to get it for themselves, *without* the guys' help. -- and that statement holds the seed of the reason for the disparity in question which denies the notion that it is somehow UNFAIR. In fact, it may well be quite fair (*individual* cases will vary as to whether or not the guy is contributing ENOUGH or just being lazy).

Posted by: OBloodyHell [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 12:54 PM

OBH, that was one of the LG and I's biggest ongoing fights. She is a complete neat freak (she's gotten better) but she used to not be able to sleep if she knew there was an unwashed dish in the sink.

Our solution: we got a housekeeper. It's been money well spent.

Posted by: Masked Menace© [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 01:38 PM

Freedom of choice. It's what you've got. Freedom from choice. It's what you want. -DEVO Use your freedom of choice.
'Six jams / twentyfour jams' I read of it in 'Paradox of Choice' by Barry Schwartz. More choices! Still, only one of them is BEST. And so many more chances of choosing wrong. Arghh.
Everything goes on sale the week after you buy it. Part of happiness is to stop shopping after you buy.

Posted by: sonar [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 04:21 PM

Well well well Cass. How is it that progressyve womyn are less happy than we ignernt types who stay home and hand feed the children? Is it because we don't know any better, a la the whiner a few weeks back? The one who re read "The Feminine Mystique"(aka The Oprah Winfrey Show?)and found why she had all that ennui?

Some one had to tell her?

Okay, I am hitting a bit hard here, but over the years you have laid out exactly what you did to get where you are. Most people don't even do that well.

While my life isn't what I had planned it to be, I am still happy because I choose to be. I am content to work toward my goals and see the results.

I love QEI as well, maybe because she was a Virgo?

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 05:16 PM

Me personal, I ain't never satisfied.

Posted by: Pile On [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 05:20 PM

And a post script here: I am valued, not because I am someone's wife, or someone's mother, but because of what I have chosen to do. You are excatly right; it is a series of trades but if it isn't what you want you keep working until it is. In the case of QEI, she took the reigns of power at an early age, but considering her wretched early life, something tells me she was being tested by a Higher Power for her role in history. Considering she had inherited a fractured kingdom, she decided she cared not for religious differences, but treason to England was not to be tolerated. Of course we all know this but she did make the decision that England was her top priority.

Had she been able to marry and have children, how much different would that story have been...and would there even be an America today had she changed her mind?

Sacrifice is giving up something good for something better.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 05:26 PM

And I hate it when I use the dyslexic keyboard.
Dang that Bush!

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2006 05:28 PM

I do not have time to read all the comments so this may be a repeat--sorry for the driveby, but I had to add this stray thought: One difference between men and women is the nature of the 'fight," or the challenge, so to speak. We all have expectations, but most men are in it for the challenge, not the results. It's a fairly 'given' that one should choose some goals that are a little out of reach, or will take extra effort to reach, and that if those are achieved, the only real contentment lies in quickly choosing the next goals. I would guess that the study of womens' happiness never really gets at the meat of the problem, which is related to this: Are women setting goals, and attaining them, only to find the contentment and happiness is not in the succeeding, but in the trying?

Also: Most men do NOT ever become what they thought they would when they were young. I have talked about this with many of my friends, and only a very fotunate few had the vision to see what they wanted to be when they grew up. I am not one of those. I am still struggling to find that 'happy spot' though I have come a lot closer of late than I have in the past (requiring some fairly drastic decisions, and acceptance of a real-ass-kicker of a challenge, just last week). Thing is, men as a rule just sort of shrug and even if not happy with the way the world turned out, they are no necessarily 'unhappy.' Some give up, but most just look for ways to get to the next plateau, which is really what it's all about...

I know this is a meander of sorts--sorry, but I really just feel it's important to consider also that while it's true that men and women are different, and that expectations play a part, I think the key is where the expecations focus, on the goals or on the attempts. And I especially agree that it is a matter of tradeoffs, and about making choices about paths, but the key is knowing that the destination is not where the contentment and happiness lies, but in the getting there. May be trite, may be old, but most men I know are ok with this, since it's the nature of our lives, as much as it is for women.

T-t-t-t-hat's it for now. Thanks for a great thought-piece. V/R SangerM

Posted by: SangerM [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 8, 2006 07:00 AM

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