I recently read the following article. It said that American women are becoming less happy, while American men are becoming happier. They suggested it was due to women taking on more roles outside of the home. Stating that women are increasingly disconnected and distracted, and as they get busier they have less time for the various parts of their lives and as a group, having children makes them less happy. I wonder if the explanations of these puzzling phenomena are really this simple or more deeply embedded in our cultural beliefs and expectations about self, family, and what happiness is.
We live in a very “me-focused” society. It’s your thing, do what you wanna do. Self is pre-eminent in this day and age. Sacrifice is the new “s” word. It is a taboo construct in our culture. Few things are seen as egregious as giving up something you want. Children demand sacrifice, children smack in the face of self-service. They are needy, they require our time, our bodies, and the subjection of our own momentary pleasures or desires. There is no question they make life harder. Any mom who goes to the grocery store can appreciate throwing children into the mix makes it more of a “hassle”.
Can more hassles=happiness though? To me it depends on how you define happy? If you see happiness pleasure, a mere emotion, something you can’t control, then having children probably will make you less happy. Yet if you view happiness a choice, something we assign to our lives when we are doing something we feel is important and has purpose, despite our momentary emotions- you probably won’t feel the same way. Surely too the definitions of happiness are different if you are looking from our long-term, eternal view as opposed to an atheistic, hedonistic, “eat drink and be merry” philosophy.
We live in a very “therapeutic society”. Pop psychology is obsessed with the analysis of self. constantly. We are constantly lying down on our virtual couches, taking our own temperatures, assessing our state of happiness/unhappiness in a way that other people didn’t in the past. Ruminating on the reasons for the fluctuations of our emotional barometers. We thinking about how we feel, instead of choosing to feel how we think. In short we can be less happy because we spend a lot more time thinking about our emotions determined by some source rather than malleable.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is underlies much of current psychological thought. Yet it struggles to fit in our gospel paradigm. You don’t have to fill all your own needs in order to really be happy and help others, in fact we’re told in service and losing ourselves, we find ourselves. Self-less service is not culturally en vogue, it’s viewed as rather unhealthy.
We spend far more time than past generations as “lone entities”. Those who study human life cycle development will tell you there has been a marked prolonging of adolescence and a delayed assumption of adult roles. We can see the drastic swing in the cultural perceptions of our relational selves. A unmarried woman in her mid twenties in the 1800s would be a pitied spinster, however in our age a of the same age woman would be pitied if she were married, for giving up her independence so young.
People are postponing settling down because, it’s hard work, it requires responsibility, and giving up freedoms. After being “free”, the shift into having children can really “cramp your style”. Most people do not want children right away, when they get married, they want their own time, this is different from past generations which didn’t place such cultural importance on knowing yourself/doing what you want to do. Previously, it was more about generativity, Erikson’s psychosocial construct of adulthood, about giving back, helping the community, raising the next generation, and today we place far more important on identity (psychosocial construct key to adolescence). Our culture teaches us that freedom and leisure= happiness. Face it, kids and domestic life are the opposite of leisure and freedom.
With the sexual revolution, feminist movement we were given choice in roles and childbearing, however it carried with it the message that the previously held roles of women were undesirable. Domestic life was bondage, that it was not fulfilling, something we had to be freed or liberated from. Many messages we receive about our domestic life are negative, advertising tells us housecleaning is endless drudgery, meal preparation is tiresome, kids are annoying, teenagers are obnoxious. It’s about getting done what you “have to do” so you can get on to doing what you “want to do”.
Similarly the modernization and rise of efficiency of the middle of the last century, while incredibly beneficial, caused a shift in how we viewed domestic life. In the glory days of science and everything was touted as being time saving. Consequently time saving/labor saving became more idealized as a virtue of the home. However some things done quickly are not necessarily the most meaningful. Breaking open a pack of oreos may provide an efficient snack, but spending 20 minutes talking and baking cookies with my kids might yield greater happiness. So with modernization-efficiency we can easily develop habits that cut out what has historically brought us more connection and internal satisfaction. With less time spent in domestic work we have new-found time, hitherto unknown by previous generations, we fill it with more things: work, hobbies, stress, and get used to our very culturally constructed “Me” time.
The interesting part of this study too is that men are getting happier (while they attribute it to decreased pressure to be the sole breadwinner), I find it interesting that men, as compared with previous generations, have become more involved in housework and the care of their children. So I have to think as paradoxical as it sounds happiness is a lot to be found in the the messy, tough, sacrifice of love and work in our domestic lives. It’s also to be found in changing how we think. In clearing out some of the philosophies of men, mingled with pop psychology, which our culture uses to set the goalposts. So if you want to may be happy maybe you’d better go duke it out with your spouse, winner gets to put the kids down and wash the dishes…
Do you see this decline in happiness? What do you see are the causes? Do you believe children make us less happy? Why? Do you see as cultural constructs that influence or views and possible confuse our thinking?