What makes women happy?

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Self help, surgery, sex? Money, power, career? The options for women now are endless. But has too much choice killed off contentment? By Geraldine Bedell

What makes women happy?

Self help, surgery, sex? Money, power, career? The options for women now are endless. But has too much choice killed off contentment? By Geraldine Bedell


We should be the happiest generation of women in history. We can choose whether to have children, and when. We don't need to marry to survive, and if marriage makes us miserable, we can divorce. Interesting and rewarding careers are on offer. We can reasonably expect men to take on a proportion of domestic responsibility. For women of other generations, we would seem to be sitting in front of a smorgasbord of opportunities.

Yet we're not satisfied. It's not so much that we have to make a million choices; more that, having chosen, we are haunted by the possibility that our choices might be wrong. If we stay at home to care for our children, we worry about wasting education and dissipating talent and that no one takes us seriously. If we commit ourselves to careers, we're tormented that our children are suffering because we're not there to help them learn to read and we're late for the nativity play.

As a result, we frequently try to avoid choosing at all, as if it might be possible somehow to have a full-time job, and children, and a good relationship, and friends, and a tidy house, and be thin, and wear the right clothes, and eat in the right restaurants, and possibly be having a really sexy affair as well, complete with suitable underwear... the more we achieve, the more the horizons of achievement stretch away. And we're completely strung out and not actually doing anything properly. We manage on a knife-edge, the whole edifice in permanent danger of collapse. Women are 10 times more likely to be severely depressed than they were 50 years ago, twice as likely as men.

The paradox of the multiple-choice society is that while we wouldn't want to give it up, it doesn't actually seem to make us happy. No one seriously wants to go back to a Victorian hierarchy of female achievement: marriage with children, followed by marriage without children, then governess, then children without marriage. No one wants to return the 1950s, 'Mogadoned-up in the suburbs', as Maureen Rice, editor of Psychologies magazine, puts it. Yet it is undeniable that, in all our striving for perfection, in our sense of ourselves as projects to be tweaked and completed, we have lost sight of how to be happy.

If you actually ask women what makes them happy, they're quite likely to say 'sex', or 'eating' or a 'cold bottle of sauvignon blanc' because sensual pleasures are still as available as they ever were. But the woman who told me that happiness was 'sitting on the sofa with my husband' seemed to be imagining a different quality of experience altogether. Most Indo-European languages make some distinction between short-term pleasure and more persistent happiness (so in Italian, for example, between gioa and felicita) and it is the latter - not the passing moments, but a single and lasting state - that seems so elusive.

More than 2,000 self-help books are published each year. Their message is that the only solution to the happiness-deficit is to get in touch with your true self and find out what makes you, personally, feel good. According to Ben Renshaw of the Happiness Project, which runs positive-psychology programmes, 'the major cause of unhappiness for women in the 21st century is a lack of meaning: What's the point? Too many people climb the perceived ladder of happiness and find it's leaning against the wrong wall. In a manic society, with a lot of external pressures, you're setting yourself up for failure unless you have a well-defined idea of happiness.'

In other words, you need to be clear about your own values. On the self-help shelves of my local bookshop, one of the most prominent titles promises You Can Change Your Life and Create Your Own Destiny. Another will put you in touch with The Life You Were Born To Live. A third urges Ask And It Is Given - Learn To Manifest Your Desires. Implicit in all these come-ons is the idea that, if you can only strip out all the social conditioning, the clamour of friends, mothers, in-laws, bosses, partners, the media and everyone else, you will uncover a kind of ur-self with clear ideas of what makes you happy.

Unfortunately, it isn't quite that simple, or not unless your ur-self wants to live in a cave and never speak to anyone again. In deciding to be a full-time mother, for instance, you have to weigh up the fact that, as Oliver James puts it, 'the status and role model of a mother is lower than that of a street sweeper, because any unpaid work is despised and downgraded'. Would more of us be full-time mothers if motherhood were seen as the most glamorous thing we could possibly do? Probably. The self-help books are offering an illusion, because we can't ever entirely strip out the opinions of others. In making our decisions, we compare ourselves to other people all the time, which is why a famous experiment found that far more people would prefer to earn $50,000 in a world in which average earnings were $25,000, than $100,000 in a world in which average earnings were $250,000. We're caught in a bind: we get quite a lot of exhilaration and sense of freedom from our choices - to be fashionable or stylish, live in the city or the country, be married or stay single. Such decisions are crucial to establishing our identity. But we can't escape the fact that all these choices are made in a context, and the idea that we can identify pure preferences that express our innermost souls is absurd.

We turn out to be immensely preoccupied with the preoccupations of other people, as evidenced by our attitudes to beauty. The agony aunt Susan Quilliam says anxiety about appearance is one of the main reasons women write to her. 'Looks are far more closely associated with relationships than they were 20 or 30 years ago. That's largely because the more beautiful we can become, the more being beautiful becomes important. My mother looked older in her early forties than I do in my fifties.'

A century ago, a woman could let her hair go grey and still feel she was making the best of herself. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the proportion of women dyeing their hair rose from 7 per cent to 40 per cent. Then, during the 1970s, an advertising campaign for L'Oreal Preference made dyeing practically mandatory. The campaign slogan, 'Because I'm worth it', ostensibly referred to the slightly higher price of Preference than the market leader, Clairol. But the genius of the ad campaign was to shift the emphasis from dyeing as something women did to fake looking younger than they really were, to something a woman did as a means of self-expression, something she did for herself.

Women who have plastic surgery invariably say, 'I'm doing it for me', and, at one level, they obviously are. According to the plastic surgeon Rajiv Grover, the women who come to him 'aren't vain, narcissistic types who spend all day looking in the mirror. They are people like you and me who have got used to feeling good because they look good.' But it would be foolish to think of 'me' as a pure inner space, untouched by external influences. These women are responding to social norms. (And even women who decide to repudiate conventional notions of beauty - to wear flat shoes, drab clothes, no makeup and a pudding bowl haircut - are making a social statement of sorts.)

It's very difficult to distinguish where the inner woman ends and other people's expectations begin. As the author Carl Elliott says: 'It's one thing to resist oppressive ideas of beauty when they are championed by the enemy. It is quite another when you are convinced that they are your ideals, a part of your authentic self; that remaking yourself in the light of these ideals marks the pathway from shame to happiness. How do you resist the oppressor when he has taken up residence in your own head?'

So those of us who don't want plastic surgery worry that it will soon go the way of hair dye and we'll be submitting to general anaesthetics and having to treat our bodies like the extension on the house - constantly improveable. We compare ourselves with others, and draw all kinds of subtle moral conclusions, even when we're only comparing how we look.

When I go out to lunch three times in a row with a friend who only pushes a lettuce leaf around her plate, I feel unhappy (and at some level, I actually hate her) because I think a) she's more interested in cultivating her thinness than having a good time with me and b) she's implying she has more self-control than I do. And also because she's probably right about that. And finally, because I know she must realise I'll think all this, and she still doesn't care.

We are in competition with women, and we're in competition with men, and it's exhausting - and, if we pause to think about it for a minute, often ugly and demeaning. It's also a no-win situation, because there will always be someone more competent or beautiful and, in an age of global media, they're in our kitchens and sitting rooms, the Nicola Horlicks and Angelina Jolies. 'We know that using your appearance in terms of sheer sexiness is barking up the wrong tree in terms of your mental health,' says Oliver James, who deplores the recent move towards what he calls 'the ladette legitimation of women using physical desirability in all sorts of ways'.

For a forthcoming book, Oliver James interviewed an Oxford undergraduate who claimed that the main preoccupations of her contemporaries were their looks and getting into what were previously thought of as male careers. 'These women will go into investment banks and work ludicrous hours, even harder than the men,' James says. 'These elite women should be the happiest of all, but this doesn't sound conducive to happiness: they will suffer terrific gender strain, because the American version of advanced capitalism has hijacked feminism.'

When even the supposedly cleverest young women are driven by the social expectations that have invaded their heads to make choices that are likely to make them miserable, what hope is there for the rest of us? Is there any possibility of clearing away just a bit of the cultural clutter and identifying what might make for genuine happiness?

One of the first things to understand is that scientists are increasingly reaching that the neural pathways in the brain for desire are separate from those for happiness. In other words, we might desire things that don't make us happy.

This certainly seems of be true of material goods: a huge body of research shows that above a certain level (around £18,000), increases in income only make for short-term happiness before people revert to how they felt before.

In one study, American students were asked what major consumer items they considered essential to the good life (house, car, television et cetera). Then, 16 years later, they were asked again. The number of items they actually owned had gone up in that time (from 3.1 to 5.6) but so had their aspirations, so, for example, a holiday home might now be considered essential. They were still two items short.

This explains why a £25 lipstick can seem crucial to your happiness when you're in Space NK, and then, when your bank statement arrives, you can't really remember why you ever wanted it. Rather like nicotine, the lipstick is only weakly enhancing, biologically speaking: enough to get the dopamine-drunk desire system up and running, but not enough to feed the happiness system, which exists to drive us towards biologically beneficial things. (Similarly, the happiness derived from smoking isn't sufficient to explain why people continue knowingly to kill themselves by doing it.)

'Buying the lipstick can actually be damaging,' says life coach Carole Ann Rice, 'because what you're actually saying is, "oh, sod it". You're absconding from responsibility: "I don't really need this, but I want to feel good about myself this minute." And then you feel guilty afterwards.' Yet we don't learn: when the possessions don't work, we go after yet more possessions. Social scientists call it the hedonic treadmill.

Anna Raeburn recalls that in the 1970s, a disease called kwashiorkor was prevalent in Biafra. 'All the children were malnourished, because they weren't getting any protein, but their mothers didn't realise that was the problem, and they couldn't have got hold of protein anyway, so they kept feeding them starch. The children remained stick-thin and hopelessly malnourished, but with distended bellies. Modern life is like that: we keep feeding ourselves the wrong things for happiness.

It used to be enough to be a good businesswoman. Now we feel we have to be a good businesswoman and a mother, and a wife, and wear the right shoes. And being women, we think that by trying harder, better, in stereo, we'll make things improve.'

Capitalism slips sweetly into the biological gap between desire and happiness, whispering seductively that everything would improve if we only had the handbag, the facelift, the flat, the boyfriend, slept with the boss for a promotion. It encourages us to see other people as tools for our happiness. 'Capitalism encourages us to think of ourselves as commodities and everybody else as commodities too,'

Oliver James says. 'We start using other people instrumentally, to maximise our personal ambitions.' This is probably not very good for our mental health; it's even worse when other people see their lives as projects to be perfected too, and your husband decides his status requires him to be married to someone younger, prettier and better-connected. Oliver James argues that we'd be much better off if Britain were more like Denmark, where men do 35 per cent of childcare and women aren't attracted to workaholics. This may well be true, and may even represent a realistic ambition for the future, but what about the here and now? Are there any general rules for happiness? Is it possible to identify the ingredients, to delineate the lifestyle of a happy woman?

According to Lesley Garner, author of Everything I've Ever Learnt About Love, someone once did a survey and discovered that the key to happiness was to take up Scottish dancing. In fact, this is less daft as it sounds, because Scottish dancing incorporates several things that are known to be conducive to happiness: it is social, it involves exercise, and music, and it is an activity likely to induce a sense of 'flow' - complete absorption in a task so that there's no awareness of passing time. High-flow activities (which might include playing an instrument, gardening, singing in a choir, or writing) are distinguished by being difficult enough to prevent boredom, but not so impossible as to make you want to give up.

Love and friendship score highly on all tests of what makes people happy, although love is obviously also capable of making people very unhappy. When it goes well, love satisfies both the desire for self-fulfilment (love is a search for the self, to the very bottom) and the sometimes contradictory desire for recognition, approval and endorsement of identity. Lesley Garner believes that the kind of love that lasts 'is completely non-negotiable. It's never considering that there's an alternative. It's the ability to get cross without ever falling out. And it's about being more stricken by anxiety for the other person than for yourself.'

Some of the most extensive research on marriage, conducted in Germany between 1980 and 2000, shows that romance, where it leads to practical outcomes, wanting to do things for the other person, is very good for happiness. The German study found that people who married were generally happier than the rest of the population (though there's some debate about whether happy people find it easier to be married). The happiest marriages, though, were based on giving. Relationships formed around a quid pro quo (if you have the kids on Saturday, you can go to the gym on Sunday morning) were less satisfying than those where partners put themselves out for the other person.

One other, much-quoted piece of research suggests (despite what Oliver James has found) that an equal division of labour in marriage doesn't make husbands more affectionate or wives more fulfilled. Among women with jobs outside the home, the happiest were those whose husbands earned at least two-thirds of the household income. There may be all sorts of reasons for this: women may invest more in marriage when they earn less than their husbands: high-earning women may work harder but still, resentfully, do the bulk of the domestic work; unequal finances may allow for a clearer division of roles, and so less day-to-day stress about whose turn it is to do the school run or get the shopping.

There's general agreement that it isn't necessary to be in a relationship to be happy; but in that case, you do need plenty of friends. As the economist Richard Layard puts it in Happiness, Lessons From A New Science: 'People who care about other people are on average happier than those who are more preoccupied with themselves.'

Social embeddedness, as sociologists like to call it, is significant. Members of community organisations tend to be happier than those who are too busy to speak to their neighbours. The Young Foundation recently produced a report which showed that, in the 1950s, a majority of people (60 per ce t) thought others could be trusted. By the early 1980s, the figure was down to 44 per cent, and in today's society of prosperous consumers, it's 29 per cent and falling. This unease affects men and women, but it's arguable that women feel the loss more keenly. We have a memory of our mothers talking over the fence and bumping into people in the high street and the absence of all that feels like loss. It's possible we even feel guilty about it: we're the empathetic ones, more capable of doing the emotional work. We're responsible for what's happened because we've gone off and got jobs and let neighbourliness slip. Yet again, we're just not trying hard enough.


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