Driven By Power Not By Money
'Cause you're the only one who makes me, the only one who makes me happy.'
A few years ago, the American academics Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”, and we’ve been re-reading it this week, wondering what you Vestpod-ers might think about it. Its surprising conclusion was that women’s lives “have improved over the past 35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men."
Say whaaat? It’s hard to believe on first glance. Surely this brave new world of (almost) equal opportunities and more control over our bodies (go Ireland!) should mean greater happiness? We assume that compared to our great grandmothers, who were encased in corsets and forced to endure multiple dangerous pregnancies, our lives are more gratifying.
But Stevenson and Wolfers found otherwise. More women than ever were reporting feelings of dissatisfaction with their lot. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. Having it all is a massive struggle! We know, for example, that women in full time jobs, whether CEO’s or cleaners, spend about 20 hours a week doing domestic work at home. That’s the equivalent of taking on another part time job. And we don’t need to tell you that it’s unpaid and unappreciated. We’re just expected to do it, even when we don’t have time, are exhausted or ill. Interestingly, studies that compare the housework habits of women and men find that when men do housework it makes them feel good, because they are doing something honourable and kind to help their wives and family. For us women, not so much. Housework is associated with negative feelings of pressure and resentment for the average 21stcentury female.
Now let’s think about the way women think and talk about their happiness. In the old days, we were expected to be grateful and happy to have a husband to tidy up after and children to cook for. The patriarchy didn’t permit us to complain (and we see shadow of that now, in the way women who ask for more money or better conditions at work are viewed). But nowadays, if a researcher approaches us and asks if we have any gripes, we’re likely to grab her by the lapels and cry “The hell I do, sister! How long have you got?”. We’re living in a more open culture. And that’s a good thing.
Also, we tend to compare ourselves to our peers when we think about how happy we are. In the past, our peers were all women doing the same round of daily unpaid domestic tasks as us, so our lot in life didn’t seem unusually miserable. Now we compare ourselves to all the women and all the men we see in the media. So of course we feel less happy than the rich, skinny, beautiful babes we see photographed on yachts giggling in to their champagne flutes with their loving husbands. And when we compare ourselves to male colleagues - those aliens who feel good about themselves for doing housework, and get paid so well, and don’t have to miss work to pick up sick kids from school - that’s another opportunity to feel glum.
But it’s not all bad news. Setting the bar high for ourselves and having big expectations and ambitions are not intrinsically bad, and can be leveraged to achieve great things. Knowing that money itself doesn’t make us happy is also a powerful tool in our self-knowledge kit: we women are starting to realise that striving to be a CEO of a top financial institution, say, is not going to bring us happiness in itself, unless we love the work we do and have great relationships there and at home to support us outside work. And as we’ve written before here, we understand that paying someone to do your cleaning or boring weekend admin tasks can reap rewards far deeper than the thirty quid a week it might take out of your purse. Money is only useful if it buys you freedom and power over the daily grind. With this understanding, women in the 21stcentury are finally learning how to be free.
So don’t be another statistic in the “unhappiness paradox”. Leverage your unique female skills - relationship building, emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and a willingness to communicate your feelings - to make your financial and social power work for you. However much or little you currently have of it.
That’s why it’s great to be a woman right now. You are finally allowed to choose what to do with the change in your pocket, the body you’re in, and the hours you have after work. And you can choose to use them to make you happy.
Are we right? Are you happy? Let us know what you think!