The Happiness Paradox

Several studies suggest that women’s overall sense of contentment has dropped. What makes happiness so elusive? Smith women weigh in and share the sources of their own happiness.

by Andrea Cooper ’83

Sometimes happiness thrives under surprising conditions. Consider Lynne Thomas ’96. Her daughter, 8-year-old Caitlin, was born with a rare congenital disorder called Aicardi syndrome. Caitlin can’t walk or speak, and she is tube-fed. “She is medically fragile,” Thomas says. “Every morning, I know this could be the morning I walk in and she’s not there.”

Plenty of people would be unhappy in Thomas’ situation, yet, on most days, she approaches the world with zest and joy. Her daughter has exceeded doctors’ expectations, communicating with modified American Sign Language and a touch-screen computer in her second-grade class, and she is proving herself to be an adrenaline junkie on the Tower of Terror at Disney World. Thomas herself is in a loving marriage and has a job she adores as head of rare books and special collections at Northern Illinois University. All in all, she figures, it’s not a bad life. “We are, as a family, pretty darned happy,” Thomas says.

Happiness. It’s something we may go to great lengths to achieve. Whether it’s personally, professionally, spiritually, or emotionally, from our family and relationships to our health and careers, we crave that unmistakable feeling of contentment and satisfaction that comes with knowing that all is well. It turns out, though, that happiness is an elusive feeling, especially, it seems, for American women. Last year, the General Social Survey, which has measured social change in the United States since 1972, found that despite significant gains women are not as happy as one might expect. A report in the American Economic Journal, titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” continued the theme, and cultural observers in popular news outlets wrote several soul-searching articles on the topic.

Analyzing the social survey’s findings in a piece on the Huffington Post, former Gallup researcher Markus Buckingham noted that since 1972 “women’s overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were forty years ago, and relative to men.” This drop, he wrote, was seen nearly across the board, regardless of whether women had children, were successful in their careers, made lots of money, or were in good health. The only exception: African American women reported being happier than they were back in 1972, although they remain less happy than African American men.

What’s more, the General Social Survey data revealed that women get less happy as they age, prompting New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to weigh in, writing, “Women are much harder on themselves than men. They tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work, and pop far more antidepressants.”

Dismaying stuff, but are women today really just a bunch of pill-popping depressives? Clearly not, and some experts believe that the conclusions reflect flawed interpretations of the data and that the accompanying press coverage was an attempt to diminish women’s progress over the past four decades. “What struck me more than anything was the way the piece (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”) got picked up by the press as an opportunity to bash feminism and women’s gains in the world,” says Jamie Hubbard, Yehan Numata Professor of Buddhist Studies at Smith who co-teaches a course on happiness. The underlying tone of the coverage, he says, amounted to, “See, see, we told you so—all this equality and progress in the workplace hasn’t made women happier.”

Hubbard’s co-teacher, psychology professor Philip Peake, notes that nothing in the psychological literature of the past fifteen years suggests that either women or men are reporting more dissatisfaction in their lives. In fact, he says, “the general theme that’s emerged from surveys of people’s happiness is that, in fact, most people are happy most of the time. There aren’t really a strong set of demographic factors that seem to be terribly important to that. Something like 70 to 80 percent of people will either say they are extremely or very happy.”

What’s more, the results of the General Social Survey may reflect the perception that women continue to feel constrained in their roles. “I’d want to query women about how free they feel to make the choices they want to make in their lives, how aware they are of what the options are and that they can follow them, and also what the obstacles are still,” says Maureen Mahoney, dean of Smith College and one of the founders of Smith’s new Center for Work & Life (see sidebar).

One thing most everyone agrees on is that the contradictory findings of the research out there reflect the complexity of the topic and give us cause to consider some of the larger questions of women’s pursuit of happiness—something the Declaration of Independence, no less, names as one of our fundamental rights. Should we—intelligent, compassionate, often overworked women—expect to feel happy all of the time? How about most of the time? And is happiness something to be pursued?

No easy definition

When trying to pinpoint a definition of happiness, one can’t ignore a host of complicating factors that influence a woman’s perception of whether she is happy. Some of these factors stem from the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve or acquire. Others come from the expectations our culture imposes on women to look or be a certain prescribed way.

For Annie Morita ’90, an executive at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, happiness arrives when life is moving in a positive direction. That can mean something very small (“like my basil plant is actually not dying on my kitchen windowsill and available for use with dinner tonight”) or something very big (“like my mammogram coming back normal when I have a history of breast cancer in the family”). There is no universal definition, Morita believes. “The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more you define your happiness,” she says. “Other people’s opinions still matter, but they matter less.”

Thanks to recent scientific advancements we know a lot more about the brain’s and the body’s response to happiness. One study this year, for instance, found that genes may influence our sense of well-being. People who have a certain variation of the seretonin-transporter gene called 5HTT “are significantly more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction,” researchers from the University of Zurich wrote.

When the brain has more activity on the left side of the pre-frontal cortex than on the right, that’s associated with a positive demeanor and being open to experience, participation, and feelings of happiness, says Smith’s Professor Peake. The right pre-frontal cortex tends to function as an avoidance system. It is associated with staying back, contemplating, and worrying. To be happy, Peake says, “you want to be doing things and not over-thinking.”

Dawn Dill ’96 is a big believer in the theory that happiness isn’t just in our heads; it’s in our bodies, too. An associate professor and swim coach at MIT, Dill teaches a course on happiness that incorporates yoga and general aerobic conditioning along with meditation and relaxation, cognitive re-framing, stress resiliency, and setting daily intentions. “I thinkabout happiness as a whole body feeling—this zest-for-life feeling where I am absolutely in the moment, confident and content,” she says. Dill lives what she teaches. Little things that make her happy “usually involve a physical component coupled with some sort of indulgence, like hiking all morning and stopping for blueberry pancakes on the way home.”

Doing meaningful work and working with others toward a common goal can also bring some of our happiest moments. Annie Morita remembers an experience she had while working at CNN back in the 1990s. “I was in the newsroom in Atlanta the evening that the Persian Gulf War erupted,” she recalls. “Being there with all those people focused on the same goal—getting the most accurate and timely information out to the rest of the world—was extremely empowering. . . . I realized then that I function best as part of a team. Sometimes I lead and sometimes I follow. But sharing a collective sense of making a difference really makes me happy.”

The last decade has seen the rise of positive psychology, which focuses not on disorders but on individuals who are thriving, to understand what such people do that contributes to their sense of well-being. Researchers have looked closely at forces such as optimism, Peake says, noting that doesn’t mean simply thinking positively and good things will happen. “Optimism leads to action. It leads you to do things, to engage, and, to some extent, to persevere.”

In persevering, some women find happiness by becoming more authentically who they are. Brenda Hartley AC ’96, an education specialist in Sacramento, California, had a recent marriage annulled but says she’s happier than ever. “When I realized I needed to break from my husband, I thought I was going to die,” she says. But over time the death of a relationship contributed to the rebirth of her spirit. Since then, Hartley’s gotten tattoos and bought a bright red motorcycle, just as she had always wanted.

To perseverance, add resilience, says psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein ’64, author of The Enchanted Self and host of a radio series on women and happiness. “It’s incredibly important because life is such a combination of threats and opportunities,” she says. “If we’re not resilient, we will fall.”

Public health studies show that people who are deeply religious or have a spiritual community are healthier and happier than people who don’t, says Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life at Smith. “But if you’re really religious and feel you aren’t living up to your responsibilities as a religious person, then you are unhappier. So it works both ways,” she says. She believes religious traditions have wisdom to impart about happiness as they’ve stood the test of time, and that even if you’re struggling with your faith, it still gives you a language with which to discuss your inner questions.

Major religions see happiness in very different ways. Judaism, for instance, teaches that study, spirituality, and acts of loving kindness, rather than happiness per se, are what sustain the world. Buddhists generally focus on nirvana, the elimination of all negative states. Nirvana is an enduring happiness that can’t change and isn’t contingent on external factors, such as if you’re healthy or not. Another concept often discussed in connection with Buddhist happiness derives from the Greek word eudaimonia, or flourishing. “It’s not the pleasure you get from a good meal or seeing a fun movie, but a state of contentment and well-being, doing well in all aspects of life, even excitement about being alive,” Professor Hubbard says. Eudaimonia also refers to the state of contentment that comes from being good, not simply feeling good. So it’s a happiness that incorporates ethics.

To that end, practicing gratitude and mindful awareness of what we have can bring about happiness, says Peggy Gillespie ’69, a journalist in Massachusetts. She saw her husband die painfully ten years ago, but even through the grief and shock, she knew she could see herself through it. “I’m happy today as the sun is beautifully warm, the garden is filled with yummy vegetables, I am healthy and energetic, I live in a beautiful place, I have plenty to eat, a warm cozy home with a view, and above all deep and lasting friendships and a great daughter,” she says. She finds joy in work and family. Gillespie is co-founder of Family Diversity Projects, a nonprofit in Amherst, and has a new partner, who is female. But her life is also rich with interests and friendships. She travels worldwide, acts in plays, performs in a multigenerational modern dance troupe, and gathers with friends at least once a month for potlucks and singing songs from the sixties. “So much makes me happy,” she says. “I would say that right now I’m the happiest I’ve been.”

Obstacles to happiness

Given the state of the world, the struggling economy, political divisiveness, and the twenty-four-hour barrage of news and information, it’s no surprise that finding happiness can be challenging, even anxiety-provoking. “The pressures that have sped up American life have made it harder to feel grounded or secure,” says Jennifer Walters.

Advertising and other media images only fuel that sense of insecurity, when life doesn’t match the vision that we see in the culture. Marianne Glasel Koerner ’54 remembers one of the most joyful yet most difficult times of her life was motherhood, after she gave birth to three boys, including twins, in one year. “Psychologically, I was totally ill prepared,” she says. Not much in the culture then depicted mothers as anything but happy, and few people were apt to discuss publicly the challenges of raising three babies at once (or, later, three adolescents).

Today, media images barrage us with the idea that a woman’s power is in her appearance while also communicating that we should achieve ever more. “Women are so flooded with external pressures and responsibilities, and take their cues about who they are supposed to be from other people,” says Barbara Holstein. “It becomes very difficult to stay in touch with what we need. If you’re not in touch with what you need, whether it’s a tennis game with a girlfriend or hugging a kid, you’re going to feel empty no matter what else is going on.”

Further, though men are spending more time with their children, the bulk of the housework—from cooking and doing laundry to planning and worrying—still falls to women. “Who notices when the kids need new shoes, who does the pediatricians’ appointments, who realizes their son is unhappy at school and we’d better call the teacher—the pattern tends to be that that’s the woman’s job,” says Nancy Whittier, a sociology professor at Smith. The volume of responsibilities at home and work is a relatively new problem for middle-class women, Whittier points out, as working-class women have always done this kind of juggling. She sees the need for a continuing women’s movement to press on for greater equality.

Outside domestic life, the sheer number of options can feel overwhelming to some. In 1960, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, only 39 percent of US female college graduates age 30 to 34 were employed outside the home, and of those, 47 percent were teachers. Now, the number of possibilities can make it harder to feel sure you’re taking the right path. “If women are reporting being less happy than twenty-five years ago, it might well be a function of having more choices than they used to have and therefore being faced with decisions that women didn’t have in the past,” Dean Mahoney says. Yet she also notes that current Smith students feel empowered by all their opportunities. “Our undergraduates are extremely optimistic about managing their lives, managing work and family, and being in charge of decisions that they make.”

Even if your path is right, it can be easy to forget to enjoy it in the race to achieve or be perfect. Last season, Dawn Dill had one of the best college swim teams in the country. But it was one of her most unfulfilling years by far and she was unhappy most of the season. She later realized she had been so focused on living up to expectations that she never felt the pleasures along the way. “I thought success would make me happy,” she says. “It turns out that what makes me most happy is truly having a positive effect on each of my swimmer’s lives and feeling closely connected to them.”

Sheila Steplar ’96, a wellness coach in Whitsett, North Carolina, believes we’re taught that we’ll be happy at certain landmarks: “Happy when we have kids, happy when the kids grow up, happy when we retire, happy when we go on vacation. Happy is always thrust into a future that never comes. We truly only have now. Now is where our power is.” She believes joy is a choice and habit.

Still, if your career, relationships, or family life have not played out as you envisioned, that can trigger a crisis of faith in yourself. “What should you be doing in the world and why is it not happening? What’s my purpose? Why am I here? These questions aren’t usually answered easily or at all,” says Koerner. “One has to accept there may or may not be answers. We have to learn how to gracefully live with doubt.”

Given that, should we even pursue or strive for happiness? For some women, those aren’t quite the right verbs. “Discovering” happiness might be a better fit, but not necessarily every second of every day. “For me, the goal is not to feel happy all the time,” says Mahoney. “I’m suspicious of it. It’s sometimes the sign of someone who’s not deeply reflective.” Hubbard, for his part, speaks of a “happiness industry” designed to make money helping people feel happier when most people already feel pretty happy.

As Lynne Thomas’ experience demonstrates, happiness may lie not in what happens to you but in how you respond. Thomas speaks with joy about seeing her daughter in Ollivanders Wand Shop in Orlando. A wand chose Caitlin as the wind blew and lights flashed, just as in a Harry Potter movie. “Caitlin was so happy and excited and I was crying so hard I couldn’t take photos,” Thomas says.

If Caitlin were born in the 1980s, her life expectancy would have been about two years. Today, women with her condition may live until age 40. “We have the occasional pity party in our household, but overall, my husband and I are both fighters,” Thomas says. “If this is the way life is going to be, we’re going to try to make it as good a life as possible in the time we have. Every morning I wake her up and Caitlin smiles at me is a good morning.”