What Price Happiness?

Looking for joy in all the wrong places?

By Naomi Wolf
happy box image
Photograph: Photo by Dan Winters.

How satisfied are you with your life? The results of our survey are! Find out what women told us about their lives.

In September 2009, Marcus Buckingham—a motivational speaker and trainer who now claims the improbable job title of “the world’s leading expert in personal strengths”—rolled out Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. His headline? Women have become less happy in the past 40 years. Unstated but clear: What happened 40 years ago is that feminism reappeared on the scene.

Buckingham’s announcement immediately stirred a press sensation. His findings were featured on the home page of the Huffington Post and worried over by Maureen Dowd on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Blogs, newsmagazines and daytime talk shows all agonized over the notion that feminism—all that freedom, all those choices!—was making women sadder. The data seemed to touch that ever-sensitive nerve: Could feminism be, at its essence, bad—not just for men, but for women themselves?

If, like me, you are over 40, you’ve seen this very same media firestorm a couple of times now in your adult life. Remember the giant 1986 feeding frenzy when Newsweek misread data and warned that an educated woman of a certain age was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married? An entire book—Susan Faludi’s Backlash—was devoted to showing the holes in that interpretation of the research, and to shooting down the various urban legends that were cropping up at the time to “prove” that emancipation made women into lonely, downbeat losers.

But here we are again, as the media swallow whole a new set of data points asserting that something fundamental about feminism is making women—fill in the blank: crazy, solitary or, this time around, simply miserable.

Did women in fact tell the researchers that they are sadder, gloomier, less happy? Not exactly. One of the studies Buckingham cites—the General Social Survey, which has tracked American trends since 1972—does ask “How happy are you?” But Buckingham’s conclusions are also based on answers to more specific questions in the GSS that ask women about satisfaction, which is quite different. The wording of one, for example, was “How satisfied are you”—with your job, your marriage, your children.

Now, if 40 years of the women’s movement have done anything definite, they have taught women to be less “satisfied,” if what that means is less complacent.

For you can be very happy with various aspects of your life and still say to a voice on the phone that you are “not satisfied.” You can be happy with your beloved partner and still seek better sex, smoother communication, or a higher, finer mutuality and parity. You can adore your kids and still seek broader horizons for them, or want their schools to better attend to their unique needs and talents. You can love your work and still imagine parlaying a middle-management job into an attention-grabbing start-up with one fantastic idea. Is that bad? Most of us would say that those kinds of “dissatisfaction” are good.

But even if Buckingham’s sources did not unequivocally bear out the “women are unhappy” hype, he is on to something, as are the commentators who took up the discussion.

Not Hip to be Happy
Consider this typical exchange among successful, affluent, educated women in Manhattan, where I live. These are the women who have everything that feminism, Western culture and consumer society define as highly valuable: income; choices; stylishness; fascinating, high-status work; rich and equitable, if demanding, family lives. Yet among themselves the question “How are you?” is almost never followed by “Great.”

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