Happiness Really Isn't That…Happy


If you haven’t read Rebecca Traister’s essay on women and happiness, do so now.

Traister, on the brink of marriage, articulates beautifully the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moral whirlpool that every modern woman faces. As she summarizes it,

Naturally enough, the same studies showing that liberated women are unhappier since feminism also tell us that women with kids are less happy than women without them, and less happy than the men they share them with. Also, women are less happy in marriage than men are. And women are less happy 40 years after the second wave than men are. So, in short: have babies young so as not to imperil your fertility; do not marry early or you’ll be at higher risk for divorce; get married to an appropriate guy as soon as possible so as to guarantee companionship; don’t forget to have kids! And also, don’t have kids!
The irony is that all the behaviors that provoke the head shaking — seeking love, concentrating on career and economic independence, having children, not having children, continuing to work after motherhood — are the very things we choose to do in pursuit of satisfaction for ourselves, not to mention to support ourselves. Stop doing those spoiled things that bring you fulfillment or you’ll never find fulfillment!

Her solution? Do what in an admittedly inexact analogy, hawkish terrorism analysts would suggest and kill the root cause – in this case, the drive for “happiness.”

You know what I think? It’s all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I’ve aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I’m just not sure that “happiness” is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it’s punishing that we’re constantly being pushed to achieve it.

Unhappiness, she suggests – or, more accurately, the absence of this mythical bliss which is what happens when we’re busy making other plans to be happy – has a lot going for it.

This got me thinking about those women who do claim to be happy: we hate them. The Rielle Hunters who are happy in their choices and have “found their truth” repel us – only those who have suffered (a la Sanford) or quested (a la Gilbert) or journeyed (a la Oprah) or all of the above (mystics, one presumes) are allowed the H word. For all our talk of happiness and perfection, woe betide the woman who says she’s achieved it: we simply think she’s wrong. (That said, I can say with absolute assurance that I’m often very happy — but then, I’m manic-depressive! A bevy of pharmaceuticals work daily to keep that euphoria at bay.)

Yesterday, in honor of Mother’s Day, my aunt sent along a poem. It was written by my great-grandmother, who died in the 1970s. She was a talented artist and an enthusiastic (if old-fashioned) writer, and, not incidentally, a mother to five. I want to show it to you:

She dreamed of poetry and art;
Of music she had known.
These talents deep within her heart
Were seeds her love had sown.
Her voice was used for lullabies;
her art, for babies’ bibs;
Her poetry, when sleepy eyes
Smiled drowsily, in cribs.
And when her babies all were grown,
She knew it was too late
For talents that she might have known,
Had love not changed her fate.
But she had seen into far lands
An artist with her eyes,
A fine musician with her hands,
A poet good and wise.

Was she happy? I don’t know. I am fairly sure she didn’t think about it; she was too busy dealing with that family and the financial stresses of first the Depression and later a young widowhood. By our standards, she should have been miserable in about a dozen ways, had she but known it. Hers was definitely an age of resignation and I thank various higher powers every day for the freedom to choose our destinies and to be unhappy when we want to. Keeping in mind that it’s a luxury. As Traister says, “some of the avenues open in the 21st century bring women joy, some bring its opposite; often they just mean more hours worked, fewer hours slept, new sets of fears and anxieties alongside new opportunities for accomplishment, pleasure and pride — in other words, the range of feeling and experience that comprise a typical day, a week, a year, a life.”

Screw Happiness [Salon]

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