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The Happiness Myth

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So women are not as happy as they used to be.

That's what Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers claim in their much-touted book, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.

Let's first define "happiness," because even our founding fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, simply said it was "an inalienable right," without ever defining what exactly should be pursued, or how.

Maybe it's contentment, or satisfaction, or pleasure, or sheer comfort. A good deal of our happiness today relies on central heating and air conditioning, rapid transportation, instant communication, home entertainment, sophisticated medication, and shopping malls. Job security and leisure time make us happy, too, but are less attainable.

Materially, we have more to be happy about than at any other time in history, but we are constantly being urged to strive for more. And that makes us unhappy. Women, especially, are subjected to this pressure: perfect hair, flawless complexions, bigger breasts, slimmer hips.... and a barrage of cosmetics and surgery to help them replicate Hollywood starlets and Vogue models. Men, on the other hand, are never expected to alter their appearance in order to resemble George Clooney or Brad Pitt. Their image, bald or fat or wrinkled, is never challenged. No wonder that men, as the authors claim, have remained high on the happiness scale!

There's another reason why women may be perceived as being more unhappy today:

Although our lives have improved materially, the world at large has grown more complex and unpredictable. Only a fool would fail to sense this. Men (generally!) are not fools, but they are less sensitive than women -- emotionally and psychically. Women's inborn radar picks up on things that are inconsistent, irrelevant, irrational, inappropriate, undesirable, and dangerous. Women personalize and internalize outside events -- a road accident, a neighborhood crime -- in a way that men do not. You might say it is women's strength....and weakness.

The women's movement (which many people blame for women's "unhappiness" today!) did not destroy this radar. It sharpened it. It exposed women to the harsh realities of the workplace, of politics, of independence and competition and responsibility. The sensitivity that once was confined to domestic life is now out in the wide world.

Even women who choose the traditional role of wife, mother and homemaker are more aware of that "wide world" and its troubles. And that awareness is now interpreted as "unhappiness"! In other words, close your eyes, play dumb, and be happy.

Real women cannot do this. Real women stay open and receptive (and vulnerable) to the volatility and vexations and vicissitudes of life. They don't sugar-coat the truth, they don't hide their angst.

So people will say women are "unhappy." But in actual fact, they are being perceptive, receptive, and honest in expressing their qualms. Men are more likely to quaff a beer and turn on the Super Bowl. And be "happy."

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