Women in particular are deemed the unhappier gender, particularly those in my demographic. Careful – I’m about to admit a startling fact: I’m a middle-aged woman, mother of two young kids (What can I say? My eggs lasted long enough to survive my youth), which means a three-fisted slam against joy. One for being in my 40s, the least happy time in an American woman’s life according to research. Another bitch slap is from parenting and the third from too little time for sex.
Based on data collected over the past 40 years, women are reporting decreasing levels of happiness, not just versus their female counterparts from the past, but also in general as they age. In fact, where teenage girls once were as happy as teenage boys, they now start their adult lives less so. Why?
One reason is our society’s increased obsession with youth and standards of beauty that are out of reach for most. This creates a sense of alienation and of feeling invisible. It also turns out women are harder on themselves than men. We focus on our flaws more than our strengths.
Marcus Buckingham, a happiness guru who studied this trend found that “since women, as a group, believe that success flows from drilling down into their weaknesses, and since, as has happened to women over the last 40 years, they’ve gradually acquired more and more domains in which they are supposed to succeed, a researcher would expect to see women characterizing themselves more and more by who they aren’t, becoming more and more self-critical, and more aware of their flaws and failings, all of which might well accelerate these dissatisfaction trend-lines.”
As our expectations skyrocket, our sense of personal satisfaction declines. We just can’t keep up with the images of perfection surrounding us, overlook our strengths and magnify every last damn hair out of place, metaphorically speaking, in our lives.
Milf? Try Barf
It takes a tremendous amount of work, being the architect of a child’s character; all while harboring worries that previous generations did not have to face (environmental, political, social, sexual and technological pressures. All in a day’s work. Arg!).
It turns out we may be glamorizing parenting, you know, like swallowing that bitter pill with a spoonful of sugar. I know some women who seem perfectly content to cater to their babes. Certainly, children give lives meaning and purpose, but can I honestly say that motherhood guarantees happiness?
Ask me that question after I have just one day free of complaints, spilt milk, requests made in high whiny voices, big brother pushing little sister who has already figured out how to push his triggers.
“I ‘noyying him,” she admits with her eyes grinning bright. Yeah, it sounds as cute as when she explains that, “I tempered,” after a full-blown, body-slammed on the ground explosion.
Maureen Dowd questioned whether feminism benefited men more than women. She writes, “When women stepped into male- dominated realms, they put more demands — and stress — on themselves. If they once judged themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens and dinner parties, now they judge themselves on looks, kids, hubbies, gardens, dinner parties — and grad school, work, office deadlines and meshing a two-career marriage.”
Has feminism opened up so many opportunities that women are now faced with too much? If this is so, then why aren’t men also reporting more distress? Their choices have increased as much over the past two generations, and yet they report increased happiness.
Perhaps it is our reactions to these choices, particularly when something goes wrong. According to Ms. Dowd, women, “tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work and pop far more antidepressants.”
Can it be that we are sad because we have too much to do, too much to chose from, and too many responsibilities? Or is the answer something else?
Men are shallower?
Then there is something a guy with some years on him wrote to me in a private correspondence. “Women are sadder,” he said, “because deep down, men are shallower.’
Here’s the thing though: Man-bashing isn’t my forte. I think the whole battle of the sexes is a maladaptive consequence of a social-political-religious paradigm that has restricted our full expressions and experiences of love and self-actualization.
I’m not convinced that men feel less than women, nor are they less sensitive or less emotional. Look around and you see the emotional expression of mankind, from a father’s tenderness with his children to the overwrought defeat of unemployment. Dudes feel. They rage, they love, they fear, they hope, and they desire.
Happiness may be less elusive for men, in as much as they report having more of it. Likewise, I’ve observed sadness to linger longer in my male friends and lovers who’ve experienced something painful. From divorce, breakups, career derailments and other losses, the stereotype that men take longer to recover emotionally bears out in many articles and studies. Instead, this ‘shallowness’ may really be armor, a male defense mechanism against the hurt, shame, blame, abandonment and broken dreams that persist in our relationships and sex lives.
Monkey Sex and Happiness
Finally, there is sex. When females rule fornication, happiness abounds. That’s the current story we get from watching Bonobos at play. Those randy creatures seem to solve most of their primate disputes with sex, masturbation, kissing and frolicking; when fucking doesn’t work, food offerings may. Makes me want to grow a tail and big teeth.
I am curious to know what comes first, the happiness or the sex, and what can we learn about our own happiness from watching monkeys get it on? Women who are sexually satisfied are also happier, no matter their age, suggests research. When I read articles on this subject, I feel like one myself. A mirror to my own life, the results make intuitive sense. At those times in my life where I was tuned in to my joy, good – great! – sex was part of my everyday equation. Well, maybe not every day, but frequently.
Is it that sense that life is great that makes us want to couple more, or is it that coupling is the world’s greatest mood booster? When I’m happy, a bad jean day doesn’t derail my willingness to want to make love with my partner. Dishes in the sink? Errands to run? Just had a baby 4 weeks ago? Bring it on lover boy, because I’m happy and horny!
On the other hand, everything on the outside could seem peachy keen, but if circumstances are trying and happiness is elusive, having sex rates up there with teeth extraction. Women’s moods, it turns out, benefit from a good ol’ dose of sperm…but we have to be in the mood to want to make love first. Which comes first, the sex or the happiness? Like that proverbial joke about chickens and eggs, we just don’t know.
As for bonobos, I think they’ve got it going on.
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