Last week the Times reported on a growing “happiness gap” between men and women. Women are increasingly unhappy. Then came the earful of opinions about the many reasons for this. Why are women unhappy?
I can think of three very persistent reasons right off the top of my head. My husband. My kid. My dog. And then, the neighbor’s dog, the neighbor, money, not enough money, my work, my lack of work, my belly, my age, my wrinkles, the dust, the pollen, dog hair, the shoes in the hallway, the cooking, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the race, the chase, the nights, the days, the fleetingness of days.
What interests me is not why women are unhappy, because we each have ample, intimate knowledge of the reasons. What interests me is why women say they are unhappy. What interests me is not the answer to the question but the question itself. Could the answer be rooted in the question? Do we say we are unhappy because we are asked? Do we grow unhappy by thinking about it? By hearing about it? Does unhappiness exist outside our ruminations about it? Where does it reside? And if it only resides in our minds, as it does, do “external” circumstances have anything to do with it?
We can rationalize that circumstances keep changing and growing worse for women. More work, less help, higher prices, fewer husbands, less time, more isolation, less community, more stress, fewer options, higher expectations. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine Little House on the Prairie books to my daughter at bedtime, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. No water. No crops. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!
Or I can recall my grandmother’s life. Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.
Was grandma depressed? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.
This news article on declining happiness appeared about the same day that Georgia walked into the kitchen for breakfast, still tousle-haired and sleepy-eyed. “Mom,” she whined, “can I get my ears pierced before I’m 10?” (Our pre-existing agreement.)
“When did you have in mind?” I responded.
“Nine,” she said, and thinking faster, “THIS SATURDAY.”
We were both upset by this exchange. It happened again a day later. I could say that my daughter woke up unhappy. But she didn’t wake up unhappy. She just woke up, her eyes blinked in the glimmering light. She cast a glance around her world, her sumptuous pink kingdom, her cotton candy life, and looked about for something she didn’t have.
I’m going to write about happiness this week. I want to examine that split-second between the waking and the finding, between the question and the answer, between the hearing and the speaking, between the being and the thinking, between the little girl with everything, and the one without holes in her ears, and see what’s there. It could very well be the happiness that eludes us, the contentment the pollsters can’t find.