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.
In part 1 of this PositivePsychologyNews.com article, I described research that shows a decline in female happiness since 1972. I asked you, our readers, to share what you thought the reasons were for this decline. The article sparked a flurry of discussion and I thank all of you who contributed to the dialogue. I will explore four of the reasons put forth and then offer some strategies for improving female happiness.
Dressed by Daddy
A few years ago I went on a business trip for a few days and my husband took care of our daughter while I was away. Upon my return, I ran into one of the other mothers in my daughter’s class. We were chatting while waiting to pick up our children after school and I happened to mention that I was away on a business trip. Her response was “Yes, I know.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
She said “We could obviously tell by the way your daughter was dressed. We call it ‘dressed by daddy’ syndrome.”
It’s funny but I instantly knew what she was talking about: The mismatched top and pants with the socks that I had in the Salvation Army bag that were 5 sizes too small (how does he manage to find these things anyway?). While my friends find my husband’s lack of ability in this domain endearing, I’m quite certain I would not receive the same leeway. In my circles, dressing the children is clearly mommy’s domain.
Possible Reasons for Lower Female Happiness Identified by Readers
This sheds light on the first reason for the decline in female happiness put forth by our readers: Women are intensifying the importance of too many domains in their life.
- Feeling Overwhelmed
Many of you wrote in about being overwhelmed with too much work at home and in your family life as the primary caregiver for both children and aging parents. But there is more. Research shows that over time, women’s satisfaction with life has become more complicated with domains outside of work and home becoming increasingly more important, like ‘making a contribution to society’ and ‘being a leader in my community.’ In fact, according to the Monitoring the Future Survey young women are progressively attaching greater importance to 13 of the 14 life domains examined. No wonder women are feeling overwhelmed.
Even though statistics show that men are taking on more responsibilities at home in terms of housework and childcare, women still feel emotionally responsible for the housework and childcare. For example, after a meeting I recently attended, I congratulated a woman who had just had a baby 10 weeks before. She said that she was thankful that her husband had agreed to stay home with their daughter to babysit. I found the word ‘babysit’ to be an interesting choice of words for taking care of your own child.
At my house, my friends actually applaud every time my husband starts washing the dishes. My point is this: Women feel there is a double standard. Men are praised and stroked for the things that women are just expected to do every day. That added pressure may be a big contributor to our decline in female happiness.
- What Progress?
Wolfers and Stevenson suggest women have made huge strides in women’s liberation since 1972, and yet many of our readers questioned our progress, feeling frustrated with the lack of equality that exists today. For example, women still have 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. This has ramifications for female well-being.
According to Statistics Canada, women are much more likely to report extreme levels of stress compared to their male counterparts. This is due mainly to lack of authority or control on the job. Thus, it would make sense that since fewer women have roles in management, they have less autonomy at work, ultimately contributing to higher stress levels.
- Media Onslaught
Another theme our readers discussed was the media. Media messages women are exposed to have negatively affected female self image, fueling an obsession to be unrealistically thin, gorgeous and young-looking well into our 70’s. In 1972 media was limited to a few magazines and a handful of television programs.
According to the Media Awareness Network, “twenty years ago, the average model weighed 8 per cent less than the average woman—but today’s models weigh 23 per cent less.” Research shows that media messages do add pressure to be thin, especially magazines aimed at younger women. Cahill and Mussap found that after exposure to thin ideal images, women experienced increases in state anger, anxiety, depression, and body dissatisfaction. Another study found that media exposure predicted eating disorder symptoms, drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and ineffectiveness in undergraduate women. The more women compare themselves to air-brushed images of models, the greater the contribution to their decline in happiness.
Paradox of Choice
Another suggestion put forth by our readers was that women were victims of the paradox of choice. People assume that because women have greater choice in this day and age regarding career options and child rearing, that this would naturally improve well-being. According to research conducted by Barry Schwartz, however, too much choice is not always beneficial.
As the number of choices increases, so does the number of options women have to forgo, which can cause an accumulation of regret for the paths not taken. In simpler times, when women had fewer options, there was less thought about what women were missing out on. This is not to suggest that reducing choice is the answer – in fact research shows that most women are more satisfied with the freedom of choice they have today. Women need to be aware that they may be more prone to feelings of regret about options they did not choose and learn strategies to manage this.
Given all of this, what can women do to improve their levels of happiness?
Strategies for improving female happiness…
- One of our readers said, “…perfect is the enemy of the good” and I agree. Don’t worry about being perfect in every domain in life, focus instead on what is most important to you. To me, my friends and family give me the most enjoyment in life, thus the housework and domestic duties take a definite back seat.
I have a friend who says “Louisa you’re good at a lot of things, but you’re no interior designer.” You know what, she is right – and I’m okay with that. I think it takes some psychological fortitude to be okay with that, but when I look at my comfortable home, I am reminded that the time I did not spend on designing was time spent with family and friends. The next time your husband dresses your children and they look like a disaster, be happy you slept in instead.
- While it may be hard to change our levels of equality in our society, it is possible to find careers that are aligned with our values. Research shows that an enriching career can enhance our family life and vice versa when both are supportive for work/life balance. Find organizations that promote a family-friendly culture and walk the talk.
- Limit media messages you expose yourself to, especially women’s magazines. Instead of worrying about dieting, get out and exercise. The added psychological benefits are worth it. Women are also more prone to ruminating, therefore short periods of positive distractions such as jogging or getting together with friends can be a good intervention for reducing rumination.
- Finally, practice mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to notice your feelings or thoughts without judgment or becoming embroiled in them. When you are confronted with many choices in life, being accepting of the choice you did make can be a beneficial strategy. Being mindful and in the moment while not being distracted by the paths not taken, you can fully savor and embrace the life you are now living. See Jordan Silberman’s earlier PositivePsychologyNews.com article about how mindfulness may help with the paradox of choice.
This is a complex topic with much more to explore. Stay tuned for more articles. Women’s work is never done.
Baltes, B. B., Clark, M., & Chakrabarti, M. (2010). Work-life balance: The Roles of Work-Family Conflict and Work-Family Facilitation. In A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Page (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (Oxford Library of Psychology). New York: Oxford University Press.
Cahill, S., & Mussap, A. (2007). Emotional reactions following exposure to idealized bodies predict unhealthy body change attitudes and behaviors in women and men. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 62(6), 631-639.
Harrison, K., & Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of Communication, 47(1), 40-67.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990). Sex Differences in Depression. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 400-424.
Park, S. (2005). The influence of presumed media influence on women’s desire to be thin. Communication Research, 32(5), 594-614.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J. (2009). The paradox of declining female happiness. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(2), 190–225.
Ice cream time (Dressed by Daddy) courtesy of Steve and Jemma Copley
Glass Ceiling courtesy of the_noggin_nogged (no real name given)
Impossibly thin courtesy of Pablo Lancaster-Jones Photo
Hanging Cheese courtesy of Brett L.