Over at The Huffington Post, author and personal-strength guru Marcus Buckingham has been running a series of posts on his upcoming book, Find Your Strongest Life. I was intrigued by the premise of the first post: women's happiness has been in a steady decline for many decades.
Sounds crazy, huh? After all, back in the 1960s women led lives of overt female oppression - stuck at home as men's servants, raising their kids and scrubbing their floors - as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. How could we be less happy now that we have so many more options, and now that, in many fields, we are heading to college more often than men and often earning more than our partners? Any minute, statistics are expected to reveal that more women than men are in the workforce. Even at home, things should be better now than in the 1950s - we've got the microwave, the dishwasher, the food processor, and all manner of other supposed time-saving devices and conveniences. Never mind the Internet.
Buckingham offers up interesting data from 1972 to the present as proof of his premise, and then discusses (and debunks) several theories about why women are now less happy (while men's happiness has actually increased). And why individual women tend to grow less happy as they age. He says the trend is explained not by women working longer hours than men (in general, they don't), nor by women doing more household chores than men (they still do, but this difference is getting smaller - not bigger). He suggests, instead, that the trends are there because women are generally harder on themselves than men - and that when they take on more and more roles (homemaker, breadwinner, parent, community volunteer, amateur cheesemaker, school committee candidate), they feel miserable trying to balance their lives and be good enough at each role.
His solution is to throw balance out the window. Oh no, here we go again - 'balance' as a dirty word. But wait. I read further and notice that symantics are getting in the way. Buckingham doesn't like the kind of balance that has to be one-size-fits-all, perfect, this-vs-that - a tenuous and stressful state. Neither do I. I don't choose to throw the word 'balance' away, however, but rather to define it as something much more personal and satisfying. Buckingham takes a different route to a similar idea - he uses different terminology to describe living in the moment, and living your own authentic life (not someone else's idea of what you should be doing or how much time you should be devoting to work vs home).
Several other journalists have reacted to this Huffington Post series. Here's one very good analysis of why women are less happy now - well worth the read. Here's another that's a scathing attack on the data, along with a rebuttal. I think there is a lot of truth to some aspects of the decline in female happiness, and the reasons are complex. But I don't think the main problem is our perfection tendencies. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that we are living in a culture that has stubbornly refused to catch up to our desires, and so often we find ourselves following prescribed life paths that are wholly unaligned with our hopes and dreams. As women, we've availed ourselves of all the opportunities we now have but we haven't let go of our old roles enough to enjoy the mix. And men have let us into the work world but haven't remade their definition of masculinity enough to join us on the homefront.
What to do? Buckingham doesn't venture into all the governmental or corporate policy changes that could help make it easier for every woman to be her authentic self and live in the moment. He focuses on what an individual woman can do for herself. In becoming spokespeople for equally shared parenting, we've taken a similar tact. Marc and I hope beyond anything else to give others the courage to choose the lives that fit them best with open eyes. To learn to sidestep what our society expects of us so that we can build our own ways of relating as partners, workers, parents, people. For us, that's ESP - hands down. For others, that may be a very different solution. Doing something different isn't easy. It's often really, really hard. But if it allows us to create our own personal definition of balance, it can make us truly happy - this I believe.