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.
Beauty and Body Image in the Media
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.
May I suggest a fifth approach: Humor?
It is certainly implicit in the beginning of your article. Aren’t we laughing at ourselves in a friendly communal way when we point out the Dressed by Daddy syndrome? After 10 minutes on a muddy playground, how much does it matter?
I had a great laugh with a close friend at IBM. Her husband had just attended a PTA meeting that she couldn’t make. He walked in the door, looked around and saw that he was the only male there, and walked out. My friend commented that if we did the same thing at work, we’d never get anything done.
Yes, humor can really play a big part in making light of our shortcomings. I think when we laugh at our imperfections it makes it okay. I love the fact that your friend’s husband walked out…If it was my husband, I have a feeling he would take every opportunity to be surrounded by women!
And aren’t both responses funny?
Hi Louisa, great follow up article on a fascinating subject. Also thanks for the link to the interesting article on mindfulness and the paradox of choice. I think mindfulness practice is generally good for most of what ails us but I don’t like the idea of expecting people to only stay in the present. We all agree that ruminating is unhealthy, but shouldn’t we be able to look back on decisions we have made and do some analysis in order to learn from the good and bad decisions we make in our lives? Although a single focus on the present is a popular notion of mindfulness it starts to look mindless to me when it prevents someone from learning from their past or considering goals for the future.
I propose modifying the mindfulness approach to accept the choices that one has made but still allowing some reflection on the decisions made for purposes of learning and growth.
Jeremy – the key dimension of mindfulness is acceptance – looking at the past with acceptance makes it easier to learn from the experience.
I love your 4 strategies Louisa, and Kathryn’s 5th (humor) and I’ll add one more: cultivating and maintaining friendships. Friends fill you up – old and new.
Thank you for your comments. I think it is good to reflect on past decisions sometimes, especially if something in the present is being triggered. Mindfulness is important in some cases when we have already committed to a certain route and do not plan to change our decision. For example, motherhood. If I decide to have a baby, it can be counterproductive to ruminate over whether I would rather be in the boardroom while feeding my new born baby. In those moments, improvements in well-being can come by savoring those precious moments rather than robbing ourselves of opportunities to bring joy to our lives by ruminating over paths not taken.
However, knowing this, can also inform us that being a stay at home mom forever might not be right for us. You make a good point.
Thank you for your words of wisdom. Acceptance can be so hard for women. If staying at home or working outside of the home is the right thing, there is always guilt associated with every choice. If women could just accept their decisions, that it was the right thing to do at that time, they could live with less stress and greater well-being.
Louisa – I’m not sure if its a male thing but I don’t subscribe to perfection in any domain. Seems like a lot of effort for little return – in fact a negative return.
What wonderful information. If you want to find real happiness, go to Finding happiness within I got my happiness.
I think these are all good points. I really seem to resonate strongly with mindfullness. It is so important to accept the choices we do make and not regret the ones we did not choose so we can fully absorb the present moments. The present moments are enjoyable and we must be mindful of these enjoyments. Moment by moment these events lead us to our future. If you hope for a better future then it must start with what you do today, using what you have learned from your past. Appreciate what you have and utilize it fully to your advantage and give thanks for such opportunities and blessings, even the small ones. And the ones that don’t work out the way we intended, well, have the courage to turn them into an opportunity to learn from that experience. Would anyone be willing to share any methods or examples of ways they practice mindfulness?
Hi Louisa, thank you for your article. As I read Steve Safigan’s Oct 15 post on Self-Kindness: an alternative to self-esteem, I thought that self-kindness could be a very effective strategy to increasing women’s happiness. What do you think?
Many years ago I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh who is a Buddhist monk called “Peace is Every Step; The Path to Mindfulness in Everyday Life”. http://www.amazon.ca/Peace-Every-Step-Mindfulness-Everyday/dp/0553351397
I read the book shortly after my first daughter was born. This book changed my life because I realized how much of my present thoughts were occupied by ruminations and thinking of other things while my children were right in front of me. I read the book so long ago, I can’t remember everything he teaches about mindfulness, but it was profound. He has written many books and perhaps has some more up-to-date techniques in his new books. To clear the mind, he recommends to focus on your breathing. For me, I just thought that if I wanted to bring greater happiness into my life, I had to find happiness in moments throughout the day. They were gifts I decided to give myself. To stop and watch the sunset or marvel in my daughter’s tiny hands or savor the taste of chocolate cake. It was about increasing those moments – for me.
One of my best friends has this ability to be fully present when you’re talking to her. You feel like you are the only person in the world when you are with her. It is such a good feeling. And I thought, I want to give people that feeling too. I interviewed Ellen Langer who also does a great deal of research on mindfulness and you get that feeling when you are with her as well. It is a beautiful gift.
So Thich Nhat Hanh and Ellen Langer – two great authors who have many strategies for improving mindfulness. I bet you Oz has many more!
Yes, I loved Steve’s article on Self Kindness. I think we are always so hard on ourselves as women – feeling like we never measure up. When we can feel compassion and forgiveness for ourselves, that is a wonderful gift we give ourselves. It is like taking the oxygen mask first isn’t it? I mean, if we don’t feel good about ourselves first, how can we possibly teach our children about self kindness? They will learn through demonstration. It’s so important to model the life that will give our children opportunities to be happy.
I often wonder if perfectionism is a woman-thing or a male-thing. I gave up on perfectionism many years ago too. It’s just not worth the effort!
What bothers me about all this is the fact that it appears to come down to a male/female thing all the time. My wife is more than happy for me to dress kids as I do it at least as good as she does (she says) if not better. I’m perfectly capable of doing anything around the house or any other thing for that matter and I don’t think I’m special because of it.
From a mans point of view, I have also missed out on my family growing up because I had to work hard to bring home money to kep a roof over our heads. Rightly or wrongly I had pressures of missing the kids bath times and going to bed when having to work when in fat I’d have rather been at home seeing my kids and being much more involved with them. There are plenty competitive things in a mans life too between seeing kids and HAVING to work, missing first steps etc etc. I don’t think this is exclusive to women. We all have choices to make and maybe there are too many choices now for women but then again maybe you are just seeing that a mans world is not all that rosy either. Sorry, I’m not meaning that in a sexist way I’m just saying that men also have to make very dificult choices – if they can be called choices because often you have no choice in the matter. I’ve watched documentaries about the age of fatherhood and it would appear that I am not unique and that fathers throughout the centuries have felt the same way – they’d rather have been with their kids but were caught in the fact that they HAD to go to work. I’m not saying that all men feel this way but then again you can’t say every mother is maternal or feels the same way as you describe here. i don’t see it as a male/female thing I see it as an individual thing and unfortunately we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Work or go to the school sports day – often I didn’t get a choice or I would have jumped at it. I’ve also watched documentaries regarding women who wanted to the top of the ladder but when they got there hated it because they missed putting kids to bed and seeing their first steps and bathing them but did they choose between job and children – no they wanted to do both (eat their cake and have it). I’m tempted to say welcome to a mans world – which is not as glossy \nd easy as it may first appear to be but then I’m sure someone will say I’m being sexist. All I’m trying to say is you do have choices like us men and you have to make them and sometimes they are very difficult and hard to bear. whether mae or female we all have choices to make that we don’t like they’re very similar(if different) pressures
You only put yourself under pressure and it’s the same with perfectionism – its an individual thing nothing to do with sex
Thank you for your comments and I have to say yes, of course men have all of the same stressors in life that women do. And I also have to admit that my husband is way better at the household chores than I am – although in my experience my friends find him to be the excption as opposed to the rule – so maybe you are more special than you think! In any case, I certainly did not mean to imply that men have it easier than women do. Part 1 of this article examines that female happiness has been declining since 1972 both in absolute terms and relative to men. With this article I was trying to determine, through research, what possibly could be the reason for this decline and the differences between men and women. If men have all the same stressors that women do, then why are we not seeing the same decline in male happiness? What are your thoughts?
As with each of the PP articles, I found nuggets to digest and redigest within your most well-written and life-savvy article on the researched differences between mens’ and women’s longitudinal happiness scale.
As I began reading your article, I chuckled as I remember when I became Mr. Mom – as their mother went on a Quilt show for an entire five days – for my two children about 10 years ago. My son, now 22, and my daughter, now 18, had then primarily (really about 95% of the time!)been chaufferred, bathed, fed and cared-for by their stay-at-home mother. Even though I had earned two degrees at that time and had taught and coached school for 19 years, I remember well the angst and fear I had the previous two weeks before their mom, Shannon, traveled on this quilt tour, for I now was totally responsible for getting my daughter’s bangs properly curled and coiffed for the day! Whew…I found out quickly what true pressure was! We managed, both Hannah and I, as the week progressed. Though I never attained the skill sets and expertise of her mom, my “dressed by dad” daughter acclimated to her dad’s sincere but not quite expert bang-curling attempts.
Well, ten years later, I no longer coach but work as a guidance counselor in a secondary school, surrounded by five other women and no males in our office. I am, I guess, the outlier of our group. Nonetheless, I forwarded this article to my coworkers and the most cited comment on how stress affects their happiness seemed to be the non-stop 24/7/365 emotional responsibility they feel for their family and childcare. It just made such sense to their worldview as you cited. Of course, I too find in my own studies and experiences that each of your reasons for female unhappiness are quite true, as I talk to my coworkers and female students.
Additionally, I would add that our self-talk is most important in how we deal with stress in our lives. We often talk in “all-or-none” positions or perform “catastrophizing” to extremes. Of course, this correlates well with the ruminations theory that research projects as a female gender-ladened trait.
While an unsought divorce entered into my life in 2003, I have grown to be much more out of line with the “dressed by dad” syndrome and more in tune with the vast emotional responsibility that women experience. My emotionally savvy and academically intelligent daughter has lived with me primarily with me the past three years of her high school days. And I can convincingly say – without excessive “catastrophizing” – that I am a much better dad today than I was when I anxiously and unexpertly curled and coiffed my daughter’s bangs ten years ago!
Thanks for your reply. I can’t say I have any answers as to why men appear to have no decline – maybe it’s due to low expectations in the first place or they were at a low base to begin with or that they are too selfish. Just looking at the date (declining since 1972)is it per chance anything to do with the so called equality that women were promised just a few years later? I say so called because there still appears to be a long way to go on that front and wonder if it may be just disillusionment that things haven’t moved along enough or maybe it’s the fact that even if you have found equality on an individual basis it wasn’t quite the panacea you thought it would be. I do know from experience that some people are never happy and when they get the thing they thought they wanted they want something else (if that makes sense. Has it been the way socially we have been brought up? Is there a difference socially between the way men and women are brought up which might cause that?
I know that being very general and not all women or men are the same but just wondered. I’m not at all sexist by the way and have always believed women to be my equal (the benefit of 4 sisters and a mum in the family) and always looked for someone who is my equal. I’m not intimidated by women who are smarter than me or taller than me et al
I’m just guessing really as I have no proof or data to prove eiher way just a few suggestions. What I do think is that everybody does appear to be more and more selfish especially since the 80’s so I wonder if that is having an effect. Maybe some people don’t realise that in pursuit of what “YOU” want isn’t really that fulfilling.
Just a few suggestions and I don’t pretend to have the answers.