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Folding Fitted Sheets and Female Happiness – Part 1

By on October 13, 2010 – 10:52 am  41 Comments

Louisa Jewell, MAPP '09, is president of Positive Matters and a consultant, facilitator and speaker who works with organizations around the world to develop positive leaders and nurture productive teams. Listen to Louisa's podcasts on positive matters, collected from a radio show she hosted. Full bio.

Louisa's PositivePsychologyNews.com articles are here.



Perfectly folded sheets

Perfectly folded sheets

The other day Oprah had Martha Stewart on her show. Apparently thousands of women had written in about having Martha show them, once again, how to properly fold a fitted bed sheet. Not only did viewers think about how their fitted sheets should be folded, but they actually took the time to write in to Oprah. Martha performed this feat while audience members mouthed ‘Wooow’ and then broke out into roaring applause. When she was done, the sheet was perfectly rectangular in the shape of a medium sized hard covered book.

Now before the show, the fact that I scrunched my fitted sheets into a ball and shoved them into the linen closet didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen. Now, I keep the linen closet door firmly closed in the off-chance a neighbor should drop by unexpectedly and see how inept I am at folding sheets. This made me think; is the state of our linen closets just one more standard to which women need to measure up? And are these impossible standards contributing to female unhappiness?
 

Controversial Study

This reminded me of a controversial research study conducted by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Wharton School, called The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.  The study found women’s levels of happiness and subjective well-being have been steadily declining since 1972 – both in absolute terms and relative to men. On many fronts, women have made tremendous progress since 1972. The gender wage gap has been decreasing and except for the least educated of women, women’s real wages have risen. More women are attaining higher levels of education and have now surpassed men. Birth control allows for greater career freedom and household appliances have reduced the amount of time women spend on household chores. Despite all of this, statistics show that women in the US and other parts of the industrialized world are less happy today than they were in 1972.

Business Woman

Business Woman

Since 1972, the United States General Social Survey (GSS) has asked at least 1500 women and men of all ages, education levels, income levels and marital status: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Respondents were also asked about their satisfaction with other aspects of their life including marriage, their health, their financial situation, and their job.

This drop is found in women even controlling for income, children, employment status, marital status, health, age and race – with one exception: African American women are slightly happier than they were in 1972. The researchers also explored five other major studies of subjective well-being and happiness which also reflect declining female happiness levels from the US and other industrialized nations:
 

  • The Virginia Slims Survey of American Women (26,000 people between 1972-2000)
  • The Monitoring the Future Survey (430,000 US twelfth graders between 1976-2005)
  • The British Household Panel Study (121,000 people between 1991 and 2004)
  • The Eurobarometer analysis (636,000 people, between 1973 and 2002) covering 15 countries
  • The International Social Survey Program (97,462 people between 1991 and 2001, covering 35 developed countries)

All in all over a million women were surveyed over 3 decades showing similar downward trends for women.

Other Objective Measures

Women more depressed than men

Women more depressed than men

Perhaps we need to also look at more objective data to consider the robustness of this trend. The researchers report that suicide rates for women have been declining, which may indicate that women’s well-being is actually on the rise, but this statistic is tricky when you dig deeper. Some studies show that the worldwide rise in antidepressant use is inversely correlated with suicide rates while other studies show no effects. Thus the effectiveness of antidepressants on reducing suicide rates may be a factor in the decline in the suicide rate. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, however, the rate of completed suicide in men is four times that of women, though more women attempt it. This may indicate that more women are in distress and they are using suicide attempts as a call for help.

Another statistic that raises concern about female well-being is that across many nations, cultures, and ethnicities, women are about twice as likely as men to develop depression. According to the World Health Organization, while depression is the fourth leading cause of disability among men, it is the leading cause among women.

Women of Different Ages

Women of Different Ages

What is Causing this Decline?

Overall, Stevenson and Wolfers do not research the reasons why there has been a decline in female happiness but they do offer a few discussion points.  On the satisfaction of women in certain domains in their lives, the researchers concede that one limitation of the GSS data is that there is no way of assessing whether the importance of specific domains to overall happiness has changed over time.  The Monitoring the Future Survey does offer some possible insight into this: Young women surveyed are increasingly attaching greater importance to 13 of the 14 life domains examined including ‘success at work’, ‘being a leader in their community’ and ‘contributing to society’. This increase in the importance of several domains in life may suggest that women’s satisfaction with life may have become more complex as they attempt to succeed in so many realms. 

The changing role of women in our society has therefore altered what measures of subjective well-being are capturing. The researchers suggest that women may be averaging their overall satisfaction in an increasingly larger domain set and therefore falling averages may be a reflection of women’s difficulty in achieving success in so many domains of life. 

A social desirability bias may also be inherent in respondents’ assessment of their well-being in the sense that women may feel more comfortable today expressing their true happiness levels whereas in the 1970’s this might not have been socially acceptable. In which case, this may indicate there is no decline at all. 

Mother and child

Raising a child

Finally, the women’s liberation movement offers more opportunities for women to succeed in many dimensions in which they have a broader group of people to compare themselves to.  For example, while I work full time and focus on my family and friends in my free time, I still may be comparing my fitted-sheet-folding-abilities with Martha Stewart and feel unsuccessful as a result. (Hypothetically speaking of course.)  Women may be comparing themselves to a much broader group, including men, and finding their lives do not measure up. 

One final reason for this decline may be that traditional surveys of happiness and subjective well-being, especially as it pertains to women, may require some modifying to accurately capture societal trends. For example, are researchers asking the right questions in these surveys to capture eudaimonic perspectives of happiness compared to hedonic perspectives? While women may find the daily grind of raising children mundane (hedonic perspective) they may feel that raising their children is an honorable way of life that brings an abundance of meaning into their lives (eudaimonic perpsective).  Perhaps the surveys themselves require further consideration.

Looking to the Future

The startling statistics on women’s depression rates compared to men indicate that this topic deserves more attention.  Are women different from men in the ways they cope with life’s challenges? Has the woman’s liberation movement put more pressure on women to be successful in all areas of life?  I will be exploring ‘why’ in part 2 of this article and also how positive psychology can help women be more resilient.

In the meantime, I would like to ask you…Despite all of the progress women have made since 1972, why do you think there has been a decline in female happiness? Let’s start the discussion…

 


 

References:

Buckingham, Marcus, (2009). Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. Thomas Nelson.

Isacsson G., Bergman U., Rich C.L., (1996). Epidemiological data suggest antidepressants reduce suicide risk among depressives. Journal of Affective Disorders, 41 (1), pp. 1-8. 

Isacsson G (2000), Suicide prevention: a medical breakthrough? Acta Psychiatr Scand 102,113–117

Isacsson, G., Rich, C.L., Jureidini, J., Raven, M.  (2010). The increased use of antidepressants has contributed to the world wide reduction in suicide rates. British Journal of Psychiatry 196 (6), pp. 429-433. Abstract.

Mackay J, & Mensah, G. A. (2004). The Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke Geneva: World Health Organization.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990). Sex Differences in Depression. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. New York: Owl Books.

Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J. (2009). The paradox of declining female happiness. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(2), 190–225.

(By the way, if you are at all curious about how to properly fold a fitted bed sheet, click here to watch the video and then call your therapist.)

Images

Warm and Cool courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski
Business Meeting courtesy of Colleen Lane
20/52 (Woman Depressed) courtesy of shanon wise
Women of different ages courtesy of LarsLarsLars!
Kate and Rafi (Mother and child) courtesy of BenedictFrancis

41 Comments »

  • CMS says:

    I LOVE doing housework –that makes me happy! I love creating order from chaos and crossing things off my check list:)

    Interesting article, I think the lack of exercise contributes to higher cortisol levels in women and what was that fact like 30min of walking each day is similar to if not more effective than taken prosac? Amazing.

    Women are not exercising as much as we should, we are working more hours, having a family, ordering take out and trying to do it all! This creates a perfect recipe for burnout, depression, anxiety, lack of energy, poor health, you name it!

    Thanks for the article, great food for thought! Makes me want to get outside and go for a walk:)

  • Folding sheets? Why, that’s as crazy as ironing clothes.

    Just like you, I find that taking the dry sheets, scrunching them up into a ball, and throwing them into the bottom of the wardrobe is both a time and space saving strategy.

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hello CMS,
    Anytime you would like to come to my house and get happier by doing housework is fine with me! I do also agree that exercise is so important. It appears that so much on weight loss focuses on diet when really exercise is the key not only to better health, but better psychological health. Thanks for your comments and enjoy your walk!
    Louisa

    Hello Warren,
    Yes, I have also banned all clothes that require ironing from my house. Glad to see the ‘scrunching sheets in a ball’ method works for you too!
    Louisa

  • C. Gray says:

    What progress? Cultural/societal attitudes about women haven’t changed much, except, perhaps, on a superficial level since 1972, the year I was a freshman in college. The paradigm may be changing slightly but the speed at which change is occurring is glacial. I am optimistic but social attitudes about women’s roles has a long, long, way to go. I don’t expect to see significant, meaningful, lasting improvements in my generation or the next. That’s depressing (and could explain the survey results), but still I am optimistic. True changes usually are slow to come about.

  • Lisa Sansom says:

    Ok – first of all, I do fold my fitted sheets and I’m so glad I know how to do that. Just a personal point of pride thing.

    Secondly, I do have to wonder how we can correlate happiness and income levels when we measure happiness on a finite, limited scale (like from one to five, or whatever) yet income could rise infinitely (we just print / circulate more money – prices rise with incomes…) So I wonder about that. There is all sort of survey-taking research showing how people will likely answer a question given a scale of 1-5 or 1-7 or 1-10 and so on, but they are all bounded. Income is not (except at the very bottom – once you hit zero, that’s about it…)

    And finally, I’m up for the “it wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to be unhappy in the past but now it is” argument. Whereas women maybe used to best each other with who had the most polished silverware, now it seems to be that women best each other with who has the most potent anti-depression medication (tongue firmly planted in cheek).

    Love the article – highly thought-provoking!!

  • Oz says:

    Louisa, what if its positive psychology that is contributing to the problem?

    See
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201009/the-problem-happiness

  • Awesome thought provoking article Louisa. I think a part of the problem comes from increasing liberty and choice. We all value our freedoms but the “paradox of choice” we have today gives us higher and higher expectations to measure up against. I have been thinking about this a lot with my 5 month old son, Dylan. For the first 5 months of his life he drank nothing but milk, and now he is just starting to get mashed sweet potato as his first solid food. Can imagine eating nothing but milk and pureed sweet potato for six months? You would be miserable! But if you hadn’t been exposed to all of the other options out there, you would appreciate having your hunger satiated and you would look forward to these meals eagerly.

  • I TRY to fold the fitted sheets…they just don’t look very good. And I’m ok with satisficing in that domain.

    I think another major issue with female well-being is that women ruminate more than men do. And because of the negativity bias, most of that is negative (all of us ruminate on negative events 5 x more than positive events). We talk to ourselves at a rate of 300-1000 words per minute. So what does that do to your (well-being, confidence, self-efficacy) if it is negative?

    That being said, women tend to rely on others for social support more than men do and it is more acceptable (still, unbelievably) for women to express their emotions than for men to do so. And relying on others is a key resilience strategy.

    Lots of variables to consider. I enjoy reading Deborah Tannen’s work on the differences between how men and women communicate and think the links to PP would be interesting to explore.

    Fantastic work, Louisa! What a joy to read…research married with real world examples!

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hello C. Gray,
    Yes, I was also thinking how disappointing that several decades later women are still having a hard time breaking through the glass ceiling. According to Catalyst, the not-for-profit New York-based women’s research organization, only 15.7% (2008) of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies were women. Catalyst claims that at this rate, it would take 40 years for the number of female corporate officers to match the number of male officers. Of course this is frustrating for women who decide to venture down this path. I know lots of women who just quit because it’s not worth the hassle.
    Louisa

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Thank you Lisa,
    The actual study goes into detail on how they controlled for income so you can read the study online at the link in the article above. I also think there could have been a social desirability bias. Thanks for your comments.
    Louisa

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Wayne,
    I knew you’d chime in with something like this! Now positive psychology is not just about happiness, which of course you know and I think that is important to emphasize because so many people make this mistake. In fact, positive psychology does research a great deal about resilience and I think that more women need to learn strategies to protect themselves from becoming depressed which is the heart of this discussion here…The welfare and well-being of women. And positive psychology, per se, was not ‘coined’ until 1998, 20 years after the decline began so I doubt it’s positive psychology.

    But let’s take a look at the whole self-help movement that continually sends messages to men and women, that we can be our best, be healthier and happier. Perhaps happiness has also become another standard with which women must measure up. Maybe women read these books from seemingly happier women and think “I’m not as happy as her so something must be wrong with me.”

    Wayne, you mentioned once that when people strive to be happier they, in fact are less happy. Was that correct and if it is, can you share this research with us?

    Thanks so much for your comments.
    Louisa

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Jeremy,
    I love baby sweet potatoe mash! Ah I remember those days with loving memories. I do think “The Paradox of Choice” is definitely a contributor to women’s unhappiness. For example, I was always a career woman until my first daughter was born. When I found myself at home I was still in touch with all of my career friends and wishing that I was still negotiating big deals in the boardroom surrounded by CEO’s and VP’s. It made it hard sometimes to fully savor time with my baby because I felt I was missing really cool stuff at work. And now, with so many choices for women, there are so many choices you don’t take that women can regret a great deal. I think the key is mindfulness – be in the moment – and decide to love the choice you did make – forget the rest.
    Thanks so much Jeremy.
    Louisa

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Shannon,
    Thanks so much for your kind words! I promise I will not look in your linen closet when I come to visit (as long as you promise not to look into mine!)

    I do think that rumination has something to do with it. According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema: “Several longitudinal and experimental studies have shown that people who ruminate in response to stress are at increased risk to develop depressive symptoms and depressive disorders over time.” You can read the full article here:
    http://www.yale.edu/snhlab/Gender%20Differences_files/Nolen-Hoeksema,%202001.pdf

    So if women ruminate more, this does account for the difference in depression levels when compared to men. Also, your comment about social support is key. While we may spend more time online on social sites, the fact is we probably give less time to face-to-face social visits. It’s just a matter of being crunched for time. I wonder if that is a factor.

    I remember reading Deborah Tannen’s work so many years ago – just brilliant. Thanks for mentioning that, I think that would be very interesting to explore.
    Thanks Shannon!
    Louisa

  • Elaine O'Brien says:

    Louisa, Great job! Yours is a compelling, and thoughtfully written piece. I love the comments above too, especially yours pointing out that Positive Psychology is not just about happiness… Can’t wait to read part 2!

    Here are some thoughts from my experience about health, exercise and positive emotion, engagement, and meaning:

    “Too much pharmacology”(Delle Fave, 2010), an epidemic of inactivity in an AUTOmated world, excesses of screen time cited in “Optimal Experience in Work and Leisure”(Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre, 1989), and general balancing/juggling of meaning and priorities around family, our avocation, and life, can be a huge challenge for women. There is also a fragile balance of emotion for many women, being primary caregiver for both children, and often later, or simultaneously, for parent’s health needs, well-being. This takes time, energy and love. We need to fill the well.

    17 years ago I began teaching a special Group Dance-Fitness class for women aged 55+ as a communities alliance project geared to prevent alcoholism and drug abuse in older adults. Our current group class members are fit, lively and active, ranging in age from 59-94 years. There are stories of hope, healing, friendships, survival, trust, courage, laughter, celebrating strengths. Haidt talks about communitas: moving together in rhythm, creating and being part of something larger than ourselves. It’s healing and empowering.

    I’ve trained/observed hundreds of women who embrace life zestfully around our positive exercise practice. The theme I convey is in using our healthy bodies to help others. In addition to moving, connecting, and giving, we also take class time to focus on mindful attention and learning new skills each time we meet. These are components mentioned by NEF and Felicia Huppert’s research with Timothy So, cited in PPND. These factors seem to stave off depression in the women I’ve been teaching.

    Best to all, and thanks again, Louisa, Elaine

    PS At times I feel I am the queen of laundry; it can be like therapy sometimes…but I haven’t ironed in years, and mostly scrunch fitted sheets.

  • oz says:

    Hi Louisa – damn I’m so predictable.

    Anyhow think about PP – authentic happiness, the how of happiness -its embedded in the language of PP.

    Despite the rhetoric I don’t see any difference between PP and the self help movement. Same themes only PP hides behind the guise of research – albeit generally poor research – preimarily correlative with female psych students with no controld in place.

    If you are really serious about depression then step outside the limited paradigm of PP and look at things like ACT.

  • oz says:

    Louisa – the article I referenced (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201009/the-problem-happiness) contains some research on why pursuing happiness makes you unhappy.

    Th whole PP movement creates unrealistic expectations – you should show gratitude, change your thinking, align your life with your strenghts, practice active constructive conversations, be in a perpetual state of flow, savour life, have meaning in life ….. give me (and women) a break.

    This is why mindfulness is so powerful – remove the judgement and life becomes so much easier.

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hello Elaine,
    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story about your Group-Dance Fitness class. You mention “There are stories of hope, healing, friendships, survival, trust, courage, laughter, celebrating strengths.” – I love this. We know that life is filled with ups and downs. It’s not just about teaching women how to be happy all the time – it’s about helping women to have hope, learn how to heal, nurture friendships, survive terrible diseases, trust, have greater courage, laugh and celebrate strengths (all your words). No wonder these women in your group stave off depression. Good for you that you are helping so many women. You (and Ray Fowler) have always inspired me to move my body and it has been the best change in my life. I have to thank you for that. Thanks for your lovely comments Elaine.
    Louisa
    p.s. As queen of laundry, do you fold the clothes as soon as they come out of the dryer so you really NEVER have to iron anything?

  • Louisa Jewell says:

    Hi Wayne,
    Thanks so much for sharing that research with us. I guess this is where we will have to agree to disagree. I wholeheartedly cannot agree that the PP movement has created unrealistic expectations for women. The media messages women receive on a minute by minute basis have profoundly shaped what is expected of us. We have to be amazing in the board room, keep house like Martha Stewart, be sickly thin, be incredibly fit, have no wrinkles at 60, be Jenna Jameson in the bedroom and look like Eva Longoria at 55. None of this has anything to do with PP. It has to do with marketeers who want our money.

    I was really hoping to stay on the topic of women’s well-being in these discussions and not have to turn every discussion into a defense for PP (after all this is Positive Psychology News Daily), but I will say this one final thing…For many years I went in and out of depression. When I fell into a deep depression after my first child was born I finally had to seek counselling. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness meditation and ACT did help – and I felt better – for a while – until other life events threw my mind back into the darkness of depression again. And my life was like a roller coaster…Until I read Learned Optimism by Seligman. By exploring my own explanatory style, I started to take control of my thoughts. I didn’t read the book and feel pressure to be happy – I read the book and felt absolute relief that I had strategies that brought me to the path of psychological health! What I learned in PP that I have not learned in any self help book – is that it is about the PRACTICE of good habits that makes you strong and resilient. And since I have been practicing so many things in PP everyday of my life (including mindfulness) I have not had one bout of depression. Not even close.

    While I don’t believe I can tell women what they should do with their lives, I can only share what I believe has worked for me and so many women I know. I think if women are just out there trying to be happy to put on a show for others then I can’t see how this could possibly improve well-being. It is through the practice of really authentically embracing life – the good and the bad – with strength and gratitude – that we will rise above.

    Thank you Wayne, for always challenging my thoughts on PP. I think it keeps me honest and I have learned a lot from you. Really.
    All the best, Louisa

  • Laura says:

    So why aren’t women as happy now as they were in ’72…

    It seems like a tough question to pose because of the generation gap. In 1972 I was seven years old and not aware of the happiness of women other than at a superficial level – makes it a bit tough for me to compare then to now. In 2010, I can only speak to my personal happiness and of women close to me, and postulate or extrapolate on women’s happiness in a global sense.

    Can you compare the perceived happiness levels of women in 1972 and in 2010 without controlling any of the variables? Life is so vastly different. Is it apples to apples or apples to oranges?

    Nonetheless, the following relates to why I perceive women today are less happy than they could be:

    – perhaps the definition of happiness has changed
    – perhaps the perception of what makes us happy has changed
    – maybe the bar on personal happiness has been raised
    – maybe mens and women’s expectations for women are unreasonably high
    – did people express their dissatisfaction with their life in 1972 to the same degree that they do today – did they expect as much
    – it seems to me that in many ways life was simpler in 1972 – people worked less, there were more family units and less divorce (Were there more unhappy homes?), families ate dinner together, the media wasnt rampant, teasing us with trying to attain unreasonable goals, manners were expected and displayed…I’m sounding like one of those old people complaining about how times have changed for the worse!

    In my opinion people have, to a great extent lost family values. People are much more selfish, concerned with me, me, me. It’s a world of instant gratification and convenience – boob jobs and cell phones…friends or foes? Whatever happened to working hard and learning how to accept losing and where did everyone get their inflated sense of entitlement? “You can’t always get what you want”.

    We are over-programmed, over-stimulated and cannot be satiated.

  • Sherry says:

    Good article. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and I think Louisa, you will strike a chord with many women.

    It’s no wonder women are unhappy. Take just one example: how we look.

    It’s time-consuming, costly,dangerous and downright impossible to try to meet society’s standards in terms of how women should look. Dieting (and the special foods/books and devices involved…not to mention the guilt associated with not being a certain ideal weight), cosmetics (make-up, hair care, dyes, hair removal, nail polish…most of which have toxic ingredients) and fighting the natural aging process (creams and lotions, surgery, extreme exercise). High heels and tight clothing prevents us from moving freely and comfortably.

    Instead of being active and engaged citizens by being involved in government and community leadership, we’re encouraged to spend our time on superficial things like making ourselves look better,decorating and re-decorating our homes, and constantly shopping. Instead of worrying about things that have societal impact, we are supposed to wonder if this colour looks good on us or worry if our roots are showing. When I was in my 20’s I used to have nightmares that I went out in public with hairy legs. Why should I have been concerned about something so insignificant??!! What a waste of valuable worrying capacity!

    The message that we are constantly bombarded with (in ways that we don’t even see anymore because they are so pervasive and accepted) is that we are not good enough, on any scale you care to measure. We still get paid less for the same work, and are under-represented in positions of power and authority. Women’s accomplishments in society are almost invisible, unless they support the traditional notion of what women are supposed to be good at. Debbie Lawlor’s situation is a good example…no one’s ever heard of her, but everyone has heard of Evil Knievel. How many other accomplished women have lived and died with no attention?

    Our society is very good at directing female ambition to things that don’t really matter (and that are impossible to achieve) and at training women to hate themselves and other women. The shelves are full of magazines that are constantly pointing out our inadequacies as lovers, parents, careerists. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best things that any woman could do to feel better about herself and get her priorities straight is to not look at another women’s magazine ever again.

    Sherry

  • Interesting discussion. A couple comments:
    1. On rumination–this explains a gender difference but doesn’t necessarily explain why women’s happiness would change negatively over time. Unless there have been recent changes which cause women to ruminate more than they did previously?
    2. On the “PP movement”–I feel like Wayne’s criticisms are rightly directed towards a “happiness movement” which includes Self Help and elements of PP. But PP is a field of study that continues to grow and evolve which includes research on happiness but should not be defined by it. There are three distinctions here: what the science is exploring, how effectively it is exploring it, and how the information is used. It is one thing to say the research we have is poor, or that it is being improperly used. It is another thing to say we shouldn’t even be asking these questions. PP does not have the predefined goal of proving that pursuing happiness is good for you. The goal is to find what is good for you, whether that’s happiness, mindfulness or folding fitted sheets.
    3. On Self Help–To Wayne’s point, just because something is based on science doesn’t necessarily make it better. I’m sure many people have been as helped by non scientifically validated self help books as Louisa has by Learned Optimism. I wrote about this on my blog The Scientist, the Housewife and the Guru.

  • Hi Laura,
    You bring up a good point…”Can you compare the perceived happiness levels of women in 1972 and in 2010 without controlling any of the variables? Life is so vastly different. Is it apples to apples or apples to oranges?” And I think this does have to do with how high our expectations are in so many areas of life now. I totally agree.

    I also agree that there is something to be said for simpler times (I, too, feel like grandpa when I say that!). I really do. I took a course once called ‘Voluntary Simplicity’. It’s a movement about how to just keep things simple in life. For example, instead of going into debt and buying a cottage that you then have to upkeep, why not rent a cottage for the same amount of time you would normally go in the summer? You’d probably spend less money than having a mortgage, so less financial stress, and someone else worries about getting the roof fixed when a family of racoons moves in. And you have more time with family and friends as a result. That’s just one example but I have really incorporated this thinking into my life.

    I also think we feel that life should be great all the time and it never is – is it? Entitlement just makes you feel worse. My mom always said (like a true Sicilian) “Life is hard. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” I think if we teach our children to be strong that is the key.

    Thanks so much for your comments.
    All the best.
    Louisa

  • Kimberley Seitz says:

    One reason I believe that women, and for that matter humans in general, are less happy now than they were in the past is because they are so caught up in being human-doings that they have forgotten how to be human BEINGS. Our lives are busier, we’re expected to do more, be more, have more, and many of us have let technology invade not only every aspect of our professional lives but much of our personal lives as well. The telephone, texting, blogging, emailing, etc. has resulted in less time just being still and/or relaxing in ways that are comforting. Additionally, technology constantly inundates us with messages that we are not enough as we are. We must do more, get more, accomplish more.

    Please note that I’m not suggesting we all give up our phones and technology, but I do believe that our constant need to DO is conflicting for many of us with our need to just BE.

    As I have become more aware of this effect and have started integrating quietness into my life, I am finding myself enjoying life more. Thus, I offer my thoughts as a reflective experience rather than a prescriptive one.

    May all of you find a little more joy in your life today,

  • Hello Sherry,
    Thank you so much for your thought-provoking comments. I do believe that we are inundated with messages about having to look good all the time. And I am really really sorry to say that I do not know who Debbie Lawlor is – to your point. Or what about that girls had to fight to get some of the funding for women’s sports at schools. Why was that not a given? You can’t help but feel like you are fighting an upward battle when things are not equal. I’m with you Sherry.
    All the best.
    Louisa

  • Hi Jeremy,
    Very good point about the ruminating! One thing that may make ruminating worse for women today compared to women in 1972 is that we have so many more domains we feel we have to be good at (re: The Monitoring the Future Survey as mentioned in the article) that perhaps there is more to worry and ruminate about. Of course that is just a theory and not backed by research. But who’s to say women didn’t have just as many problems in the past? Good point.

    I also agree that there are many pathways to well-being, PP just being one of them (although I disagree that folding fitted sheets is one of them, but Martha might disagree with me). And PP is not the right application for everyone’s situation. I just read your blog, The Scientist, The Housewife and the Guru and I wholeheartedly agree. I think my friends, who are not scientists, offer me the greatest advice. I also think that we do not place enough trust in ancient wisdom. If practices from thousands of years ago are still alive today, then shouldn’t we pay attention to them?

    I also agree that just because it is backed by science, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. It just comes at the same things with a different perspective. I have learned so much from Eckhart Tolle – his wisdom is profound.
    Thanks for the discussion Jeremy.
    Louisa

  • Hello Kimberley,
    I remember once, many years ago, I was sitting next to a very elderly lady on the subway while I read my Palm electronic organizer. She looked at me and asked “Do you think those devices have improved your life?” My answer to her was “No”. She was surprised to hear that. To me, it just meant I should be working all the time because I could. I often just turn off my phone and I never check email on vacation. I find people are surprised when I tell them I will be off email for a couple of weeks while I vacation. But how do you recharge if you are always ‘on’? Thank you for the reminder to just ‘BE’. I also wish you find a little more joy in your life today.
    Thank you.
    Louisa

  • Elaine O'Brien says:

    Louisa, thanks for sharing your personal story. Your Positive Psychology News Daily story has created an interesting forum, with thoughtful points, including those by Jeremy and Sherry. I also have fought depression for too many years of my life. I took Zoloft for a little bit, but felt about the same without it. The thing that helps/has helped me the most, beside my loving family and friends, is moving, especially to music with others. Spending some time with nice people, sharing, caring feels great, and can provide an opportunity for community/individual health and well-being. It is a preventative measure against anxiety and depression! Other things that help me personally, are being curious, learning more, creating, and I agree with Wayne here, mindfulness.

    I’ve been teaching positive exercise practices (PEP) for more than 30 years. With undergrad degrees in Psychology and Urban & Outdoor Recreation/Fitness, improving the quality of peoples lives across lifetime and place has seemed like a natural. Part of my Occupational Therapy clinical training was at the Kessler Institute, working with patients in the psychiatric unit.

    In 2007, I was accidentally introduced to Positive Psychology, aka, Positive Behavioral Science, about 3 weeks after my beloved father, Armando, died a terrible and heart-wrenching death. Mistakes around modern medicine prevailed, and despite our cries and advocacy for his care, we saw him suffer too long and too much. (End of life care is in dire need of much more humanity).

    This one day, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my head in my hands. in despair, ruminating on what I might have done differently to ease my dad’s, and now mom’s, suffering. Looking down at a pile of mail, I saw a newsletter from Brookdale Community College where I’d taught “Fitness Through Dance” for 10 years. There was a blurb about a new “Introduction to Positive Psychology” class taught by Dr. Joel Morgovsky, and a phone number. I called Joel and I asked him something like, “What the heck is this class?” I signed up and haven’t looked back.

    (This next paragraph is distressing, so feel free to skip)
    Though there are times, especially lately since I returned from China in August, that it is difficult to cope with life, and you know I don’t just mean folding fitted sheets. Our family has had to deal with the murder of my Aunt Olga’s dear brother, Antonio, in Brazil, and then the tragic death of my Aunt Terry and Uncle Al’s daughter-in-law by a train. Life can be terrible…(During this time, our 15 cat, Kerouac, almost died -he had surgery and is doing much better). I also have concerns about two friends with Stage 4 Breast cancer; It makes me sad.

    Though times of loss and need, I credit my friends, family and my practice in the field for helping me “stay above “0.”

    Elaine
    PS THANK YOU for your very kind comment about me and Ray Fowler; I’m honored.
    PSS I mostly try to fold asap after.

  • Should we open a PPND forum for this?

  • Dear Elaine,
    First I must say how deeply saddened I am to hear about the tragedies that have occurred in your family. I met with Dr. Paul Wong this week who has studied meaning for over 3 decades. One thing he said to me that really made an impression is that positive psychology is so important for those who are suffering. And he didn’t mean suffering from mental illness; he meant suffering with tragic life events that occur so regularly to people around the world. Think of those 33 miners who used hope, optimism, spirituality, courage and love to stay strong throughout their ordeal.

    It is at times like these that I hope your learnings in PP will serve you well to overcome. My thoughts are with you.
    Louisa

  • Jenny Anderson says:

    This is the opinion of a working, motivated, tired mother of 3:)

    Although women have more rights and more opportunities we are still…women. We are constantly struggling with our evolutionary drive to be mother, sportive spouse, and home maker…and our now socially accepted/expected role in the working world. Society expects us to do it all, and unfortunately so do we. Women aren’t choosing one world or another, we want it all. We have to be willing to let go of some of our evolutionary neurosis like having perfectly folded sheets and quite frankly, pay someone else to do it for us. We need to unload those things that aren’t necessary for us to do and make room for those things that bring real happiness and real meaning.

  • Mayrienne says:

    Hey Louisa. I think the discussion has to move from happiness to contentedness. Happiness is so loosely defined and measured and I don’t think that is what most women are looking for. So let’s think back to 1972 and how fu*%! it was then. That was just after the success of the civil rights movement, a couple of significant assassinations, the beginning of the energy crisis and the visualization by many women of how much more they could achieve in terms of career and other validation while combining with being the perfect wife, mother, etc. I think we’ve misidentified what is important and relevant and happiness is also glamorized. Are you happy every day of your life or are you content? And do you strive to be content? I think that is how the thought process has to be differentiated. Still, interesting conversation. I can add more for consideration and one area where I am actually a little embarrassed is the liberation movement (since it was mentioned earlier). I don’t discount the achievements of those accomplishments but I also consider some of the attitudes consistent with male chauvinism. The idea that women are superior to men is as fallible as male chauvinism is/was and ineffective. I believe in equality and I believe our lack of content rests in the more intrinsic aspects. We have proven we can work as effectively from a physical and mental standpoint so why does this lack of happiness persist? I think it lies in how women are wired. We need to nurture our soul as that is how women are. If we don’t have the ability or time to convey our nurturing skills, our little baby souls don’t get properly fed. Does that make sense at all? Hopefully it does but again, I think we have to get away from this expectation of happiness. Being content is what I strive for.

  • Lauren says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. Martha Crowley, a sociologist at the college where I work at NC State, recently published some research (see http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/wmscrowleyworking/) that indicates that many practices now in place in our work environments — practices intended to improve productivity and profits — actually have detrimental effects on our well-being. Paired with the pressure many women feel to do well in all our domains, no wonder we’re more stressed and less satisfied.

  • Tamatha says:

    WOW! I saw that episode and my mouth dropped too like the women in the audience. And then I had this deflating feeling of being even further from Supermom. I never purposly strive for Supermom but I do feel the pressure and pulls of endless demands. Maybe women all over feel we have to measure up to some ‘perceived’ standard. Who creates these absurd standards? Perhaps we do.

    Many women are stretched so thin. Many of us who are moms are so busy trying to be a great mother while trying to run a household and be a great wife or a single mom, and have a career. Where does all this leave us in our social network that us women need? What time do we then have for philanthropic persuits? Simply, when do we have time for ourselves??

    Yes, exercise is so important. Even if you don’t have much time and it’s only 10 minutes. Go out a take a short walk. Jump on the bike. It makes a huge difference in our well-being. Just the break you take to re-connect with yourself will benefit you. Even if you feel no other benefit just the act of doing it is helpful as you feel as if you have done something.

    Additionally we need time to communicate with our friends and to share not only our problems, but most importantly, our happiness. We need that connection. If we are constantly on the go, we don’t get that needed social support. And when we do have time, we may be too tired to motivate ourselves to pick up that phone or get ourselves out that door to meet our friends.

    Sometimes when we live our lives in such a way it can be cyclic: running around, being tired, feeling behind and off-point, and then feeling even worse when we begin to notice this wheel in which we are running. And then feelings of dissappoint or failure are created and this may slow us down even more and alter our mood in a non-productive way to the point we feel so overwhelmed that we are running to the doctors for the meds because we can’t cope ‘normally’.

    Whew! Just breathe. Again, what’s the worst thing that happens if that load of laundry sits there one more day? Or your fitted sheets are crumpled in a ball in the linen closet instead of folded in neat, tight squares? Of course, it’s not always about the laundry and folded sheets but these are just representations of the bigger picture.

    I used to worry more about things and then realized I have a choice and when I thought about all the things out there I should do or thought was expected of me I realized I couldn’t do it all as I had no complete control over all of them. So I slowed down and regained my own feeling of control in the form of my own choices; chosing what was most important to me. I have control over myself and what I chose to do. I make sure that I am satisfied with my choices and keep moving forward to the next crossroads.

    So if you look in my linen closet you will either find my fitted sheets folded neatly or in a slight ball. I am happy about that, either way it may be.

  • Tamatha says:

    Do you think that perhaps men’s overall societal expectations of what we should do has also increased unreasonably as well adding to some of these extra pressures and the happiness decline? How much do you think it may influence our well-being?

  • Caitlin Close says:

    Louisa,
    I’m sure someone has made similar comments but seeing as how there are dozens I didn’t read through them all. I love your article and think it’s great that people are finally talking about this – and also relieved that it’s not just something that I thought while watching that particular episode of Oprah. I think the opportunities available to women have put great amounts of pressure on us to have it all, all the time. We strive to be the total package – the perfect housekeeper, perfect cook, perfect wife and mother, perfect employee or boss, and to love every minute of it while having the perfect physique of course. We see images of picture perfect celebrities on every cover of every magazine and on television and have become trained to subconsciously believe this is normal and anything less than is less deserving. Could it be that technology and media attention has grown so astronomically since 1972 that women are more stressed and less happy with lower self-esteem?

  • Hi Jenny,
    I have to agree with you. I think that women really want to ‘have it all’ and I think the media and society put pressure on us to believe we can ‘have it all’. I do hire a number of people to help me get household chores done and it is a blessing, but beyond that I think we have to be okay if things are perfect. So what if the house isn’t perfectly decorated or the hedges haven’t been trimmed in a while. It’s about not letting it stress us out.

    I also thought you brought up a good point about our evolutionary drive. I do wonder how much of this is innate and part of our DNA? Are our minds built to worry about this stuff? I think that would be interesting to explore. Thanks for your comments Jenny.
    Louisa

  • Hello Mayrienne,
    I like your idea around contentedness. I think that is truly how I feel when I consider myself to be ‘happy’. Just a peaceful contentedness. I think you are also right about nurturing our souls. If we don’t get back to what is meaningful for us in our lives and focus on being content, we will never feel good about our lives. Great insight. Thank you.
    Louisa

  • Hello Lauren,
    Thank you for highlighting that interesting piece of research by Martha Crowley et al. I read the article you refer to and I found this quote interesting…

    “Significant shifts are also apparent in the organization of professional/managerial work, including increases in team-based production, temporary outsourcing, overwork, and evaluation via reputation. These practices…have heightened performance pressure and impinged on the nature of professional work and employee well-being, largely by way of unintended consequences, including reduced commitment, increased chaos, vertical conflict, horizontal conflict and acute stress.”

    She implies that this performance pressure puts workers into ‘career preservation’ mode which can create a more hostile work environment where no one cares to be supportive towards each other. Thus if a woman cannot ‘keep up’ due to demands at home, we can see how this can be extremely stressful for women. I can see how this can also be stressful for men too. But perhaps when the woman’s work is less of a priority she is not able to make the case for spending extra time at work to keep up and yet it’s okay if men need to spend more time at work to keep up because it’s ‘good for the family’. At least that’s what society seems to accept as okay. What do you think?

    Louisa

  • Hi Tamatha,
    I love your comments. I do believe that we have to slow down and focus on what is important to us and feel okay about the fitted sheets not being perfect all the time. I like that sometimes it’s important and sometimes it’s not – but what is important is that it doesn’t matter if we are less than perfect. Feel okay about that.

    I haven’t contemplated men’s societal expectations and how they have changed so I’m not sure how to comment on that but I have noticed that younger women complain about the high standards men have. I have also been surprised by comments from younger men. For example, I might point out a good female match for a younger male friend of mine and he’ll comment on how her ‘butt is too big’. In my opinion her butt is not Eva Longoria perfect, but maybe more Marilyn Monroe. Then I think ‘wow’ that’s an impossible standard. What about getting to know the woman and seeing if she’s a great person first?

    I went to a halloween party on the weekend and most of the young women were walking around in their underwear. When I commented to the security guard that Halloween is just a license to dress in undergarments, he answered with “What are you talking about? They dress like that every weekend.” I think that women feel the pressure and feed right into it. Are we creating a world where people are so shallow because with a few nips and tucks we can be perfect? I don’t know. In my opinion, I agree with you. I think it is one more thing that adds more pressure on us as women and taking away from our feelings of well-being.
    Louisa

  • Hello Caitlin,
    I think you have hit the nail on the head. I think the media onslaught at every turn makes us believe that we need to maintain a perfect standard in every area of our lives. We see women on TV who appear to be perfect and yet we don’t really get the true behind the scenes picture do we? I mean if you look at Martha Stewart, she appears to be the perfect everything except she went to jail and had bad relationships. So she’s not so perfect after all. So why do so many women strive to uphold her standard? It’s not realistic if you want to have a happy life. In 1972 we didn’t have the same media influences at all. I think our TV was still black and white! I think media is definitely a huge factor.
    Louisa

  • Mark2 says:

    The perfect is the enemy of the good, so the saying goes and of happiness too it seems. Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice shows how increased opportunity often conspires to make us less happy. And Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness demonstrates how prone we are to ‘miswanting’ things anyway, in the mistaken belief they’ll make us happier than they actually do.

    As Caitlin suggests, the irony might be that, in light of the social progress & increased opportunity since 72, if women are not happy now then they may also be more likely to feel it’s somehow their fault, such is the tyranny of choice & expectation.

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