The happiness question

October 1st, 2007

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.


  1. What a thought-provoking post. I think the problem is with the question. I’ve come to realize that my happiness is my responsibility. Enjoying my life needs to be a priority. It’s a good thing to model for my children. Thanks for the important reminder!

    Comment by shauna — October 1, 2007 @ 4:25 am

  2. Interesting posting. My mind is full of thoughts!

    I’m looking at the three top reasons you named for possibly being unhappy and thinking if you were to list reasons for being happy, you might say: your husband, your kid, your dog. Leaving aside your book, your work.

    Reason I mention this is that my mother-in-law has noticed, now that she’s a widow, how often a person’s cause of death is related to their hobby or the thing they most loved doing.

    So I’m thinking happy and unhappy may balance out, in the end, to a position of neutral. And we’re not taking an accurate sampling, in a sense, if we examine our state of happiness each day.

    Am looking forward to your next posting.

    Comment by Moanna — October 1, 2007 @ 5:25 pm

  3. a good friend of mine…and i, had a conversation surrounding this very topic recently.

    she commented…that it seemed as though these days, there is more ‘time’ to be depressed. to ‘feel’ depressed.

    that how anyone in a time when they had as many responsibilities (Ie: feeding family), as our ancestors did, could possibly be depressed…

    i thought that was an interesting thought. and it makes sense. we have too much idle time on our hands. when we aren’t entertaining or being entertained…we have time to analyze….obsess…compare…etc etc.

    Comment by stella — October 2, 2007 @ 2:04 am

  4. happiness was the topic of my yom kippur sermon. there is so much out there on “how to be happy” or “how to find happiness in your life.” we live such full incredible lives, how is it that they seem empty? i worry so much about our world…what are we creating in our children that, like you said, they can look around the fullness of their lives and still want more? i spoke in my sermon about the idea of “dayenu” — a hebrew phrase that means “it is enough.” a great chapter in irwin kula’s book “yearnings” on happiness brought this idea into my sermon and i think you might find the concept interesting. check it out…i look forward to reaidng your writings on happines…also check out for interesting stuff on this topic. i wrote my sermon, interestingly, before all this hit the news recently…who knew i was so cutting edge??? (sorry for the long rambly comment!)

    Comment by phyllis — October 2, 2007 @ 3:48 am

  5. Creepy, I was just thinking that this morning. Our state of mind seems to be a choice, and it can go either way. I think a lot has to do with our own expectations. If we can achieve our goals (get the laundry done) it is satisfying. If we can’t (get the laundry done, have a fulfilling career) we are left with a feeling of emptiness.

    Comment by Mika — October 2, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

  6. Friends, you all inspire me in different ways. Most importantly, you inspire me to keep going!

    Moanna, yes it does balance out. It’s already balanced. It begins and ends neutral. We are the ones who swing in and out of balance with our “upside down thinking.”

    Stella, I agree. It’s how we use our time. We’re all self-helped to the point of endless self-questioning, “How do I feel about this?” Feelings are OK, but left to themselves they are impermanent like everything else.
    Bad feelings go away, leaving the neutrality, or contentment that Moanna spoke of.

    Mika, we are soulmates.

    Shauna, you own the world.

    Phyllis, there are no coincidences!
    So nice to meet you on the same page time and again.

    Comment by Karen — October 2, 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  7. wow. what a synchronistic post. she woke up and looked around for soemthign she did nto already ahve. this is hititng home. i celebrated my anniversary with my incredible amazing husband, and then looked around at what i don’t have, a child, and felt depressed. soenthing ehre jsut hits me right in the heart. thank you.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 9, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

  8. How often I’ve wanted to suspend in that split second between waking and finding. The space between the rowboat and the dock, where poetry lives…

    Comment by Jena Strong — March 26, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  9. a toast…to our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers and so on…and on and on we go.

    thank you for making me think about the “questions”, karen. i just wanna hug you to pieces for your amazing gift of words and WISDOM!

    Comment by Kat — June 19, 2008 @ 3:49 am

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