Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Will burning my bra make me happy?

A study by University of Pennsylvania researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” declares that women are “less happy after 40 years of feminism.”

I have so many problems with this study. First of all, whoever said the goal of feminism was happiness. I can’t think of another ideology in which the ideal is determined as such. Is the goal of liberalism or socialism, “happiness?” Are there smiley faces in the U.S. Constitution that I’ve missed all of these years?

Feminism, although not a monolithic ideology, at the very least espouses equal rights in the public and private sectors, public being the workplace, health care, government and private being rights relating to human sexuality and the home. What does that have to do with being happy?

Also, and maybe I’m depressed, but the notion of happiness seems to be a modern one that is based on unrealistic expectations promoted by popular and consumer culture. I never look as happy as the people in the commercials when I brush my teeth, put on deodorant, and I’ve definitely never had an orgasm shampooing my hair.

I find joy when I’m with my family and friends. An intimate relationship evokes happy feelings for as long as it lasts or is healthy. I find “flow” when I am doing something interesting at work or am in front of a classroom or writing. The point of feminism is to allow women the access to any prospect. The goal of access is not happiness, it is opportunity.

And I can’t imagine being happier with less opportunity. I don’t think the decline of happiness correlates with the rise of feminism. Rather, the expectations of what exactly makes a person happy have been increasingly fictionalized during the past 40 years, and therefore the brutal reality of what is life causes us to find less joy in what is good and what is beautiful. We take those gifts for granted and throw them to the side of the road until it’s the “right time” or the “perfect” situation. The lack of appreciation for the ordinary and the need to forget the past and move on to the next thing, is what dehappifies, not feminism.

Check out Buddhism. According to their tenets, life is suffering and the goal of life should be to end suffering. Perhaps that’s too extreme for our culture, but even if you go to Western Religion, you will see that God was never happy, nor were his patriarchs. They were “good,” “righteous,” and “blessed.” Happiness and joy are reserved for special occasions like life cycle events and holidays.

This study should not be an indictment on feminism but rather one on the concept of happiness and its exaggerated definition and role in our imbalanced culture.

6 comments:

dirk-monides said...

I tend to think feminism has been a real force behind the decline of Amreica. It has contributed to the breakdown of the family unit. And now it's leading us to the edge of Socialism. Apparently drive thru abortion and promiscuity weren'tthe keys to female happiness.

Anonymous said...

First, saying that the notion of happiness is "a modern one" is somewhat nearsighted, given that it's at the core of practically any ideology, including the ones you mentioned. Your characterization of the Buddhist notion of suffering is rather superficial, and without getting too much into it, I just want to quote the opening lines of the Dalai Lama’s recent lecture in Arizona: "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness [...], the very motion of our life it towards happiness …" Your treatment of “Western Religions" is equally crude. From St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Pope Benedict XVI, Christian theologians have been consistently stressing happiness as inseparable from virtue and goodness.

In the secular arena, the "pursuit of happiness" is one of the "unalienable rights" of people enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, arguably the ideological foundation of American liberalism. You can find the phrase "pursuit of happiness" in several state Constitutions, in numerous court opinions, and in the Constitutions that we helped draft for other countries (e.g., Japan, Vietman). The phrase also appears in some of the foundational feminist literature, such as the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments.

The feminists who are most pertinent here (the so-called second-wave feminists and third-wave feminists of the past 40 years e.g., Betty Friedan) were particularly concerned with happiness. Many legal inequalities have been addressed (or were soon to be addressed), and the focus largely shifted to the discontent of women, whose gender roles prevented them from seeking fulfillment outside of the home.

This feminism of the past 40 years was instrumental in bringing women outside of the home and, supposedly, put women on the path of greater fulfillment. Therefore, I don't understand why you take issue with the legitimacy of question (that this study raises) regarding how women's happiness correlated with the evolution of feminism. And I do want to note that your attack on the validity of the question appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the inconvenience of the answer. It is much easier to blame women's declining happiness on "unrealistic expectations" of happiness and on "lack of appreciation for the ordinary," as you put it. However, these reasons do not explain why, during the past few decades, the happiness of women has fallen drastically RELATIVE TO THAT OF MEN, as the study reports. Wouldn't unrealistic expectations and lack of appreciation for the ordinary make men less happy as well?

The truth is that feminism, while bringing about positive change for women, also failed in some respects. It did not just provide equality and opportunity, as you claim, but it created a whole new culture, in which there was pressure for women not to miss a single opportunity. This culture did not just make the pursuit of happiness more feasible for women, but it also dictated the kind happiness that should be pursued. It prescribed that to be happy, an enlightened woman should aspire to make partner at a law firm, or to become an executive on Wall Street, or to become a scientist, a politician, etc. It established that a woman with a Blackberry and a frequent flyer club card will have superior depth/intellect over a stay-at-home mom. The term "stay-at-home mom" itself became derogatory, suggesting that no woman can find fulfillment through raising a family.

This study is not "an indictment on feminism," as you say, but rather a suggestion that perhaps the past/present women’s interests philosophies did not get everything right. By no means does this study put forward that they got it all wrong, e.g., that "equal rights ...," etc. was a bad idea, but it does propose that we reexamine the resulting cultural discourse and perhaps modify it to remove some of the pressure that is potentially causing the decline in women’s happiness.

Anonymous said...

First, saying that the notion of happiness is "a modern one" is somewhat nearsighted, given that it's at the core of practically any ideology, including the ones you mentioned. Your characterization of the Buddhist notion of suffering is rather superficial, and without getting too much into it, I just want to quote the opening lines of the Dalai Lama’s recent lecture in Arizona: "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness [...], the very motion of our life it towards happiness …" Your treatment of “Western Religions" is equally crude. From St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Pope Benedict XVI, Christian theologians have been consistently stressing happiness as inseparable from virtue and goodness.

In the secular arena, the "pursuit of happiness" is one of the "unalienable rights" of people enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, arguably the ideological foundation of American liberalism. You can find the phrase "pursuit of happiness" in several state Constitutions, in numerous court opinions, and in the Constitutions that we helped draft for other countries (e.g., Japan, Vietman). The phrase also appears in some of the foundational feminist literature, such as the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments.

The feminists who are most pertinent here (the so-called second-wave feminists and third-wave feminists of the past 40 years e.g., Betty Friedan) were particularly concerned with happiness. Many legal inequalities have been addressed (or were soon to be addressed), and the focus largely shifted to the discontent of women, whose gender roles prevented them from seeking fulfillment outside of the home.

This feminism of the past 40 years was instrumental in bringing women outside of the home and, supposedly, put women on the path of greater fulfillment. Therefore, I don't understand why you take issue with the legitimacy of question (that this study raises) regarding how women's happiness correlated with the evolution of feminism. And I do want to note that your attack on the validity of the question appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the inconvenience of the answer. It is much easier to blame women's declining happiness on "unrealistic expectations" of happiness and on "lack of appreciation for the ordinary," as you put it. However, these reasons do not explain why, during the past few decades, the happiness of women has fallen drastically RELATIVE TO THAT OF MEN, as the study reports. Wouldn't unrealistic expectations and lack of appreciation for the ordinary make men less happy as well?

The truth is that feminism, while bringing about positive change for women, also failed in some respects. It did not just provide equality and opportunity, as you claim, but it created a whole new culture, in which there was pressure for women not to miss a single opportunity. This culture did not just make the pursuit of happiness more feasible for women, but it also dictated the kind happiness that should be pursued. It prescribed that to be happy, an enlightened woman should aspire to make partner at a law firm, or to become an executive on Wall Street, or to become a scientist, a politician, etc. It established that a woman with a Blackberry and a frequent flyer club card will have superior depth/intellect over a stay-at-home mom. The term "stay-at-home mom" itself became derogatory, suggesting that no woman can find fulfillment through raising a family.

This study is not "an indictment on feminism," as you say, but rather a suggestion that perhaps the past/present women’s interests philosophies did not get everything right. By no means does this study put forward that they got it all wrong, e.g., that "equal rights ...," etc. was a bad idea, but it does propose that we reexamine the resulting cultural discourse and perhaps modify it to remove some of the pressure that is potentially causing the decline in women’s happiness.

scarpetta said...

Thanks Anonymous for your thoughtful response.

Rachel Karp said...

Perhaps men and women have different kinds of happiness and different things make them happy or unhappy. The study assumes that all happiness is the same, which I don't think it is.

I think it is also important to note the biological aspects of happiness. Depression can be biological and can be very much connected to the environment. For example, a deficiency in Vitamin D can cause depression, and most women don't go out into the sun nearly enough (often for the very good reason of skin cancer).

I agree that the pressure to be the best at everything you do is daunting for me as a woman, and I worry that I won't be able to spend enough time with my family in the future and I worry about dragging them from country to country and continent to continent to pursue my dreams. But then again, I don't think I can give up those dreams, either.

Scott Segal said...

You're clearly using the wrong kind of shampoo.