How can you be happy when someone’s pressuring you to be happy?

Rebecca Traister at Salon has written an insightful and funny article called Screw happiness. It starts off talking about how women are bombarded with studies about which women are happy and how we can become happy like them:

So, in short: have babies young so as not to imperil your fertility; do not marry early or you’ll be at higher risk for divorce; get married to an appropriate guy as soon as possible so as to guarantee companionship; don’t forget to have kids! And also, don’t have kids! …Stop doing those spoiled things that bring you fulfillment or you’ll never find fulfillment!

Then she takes it further than the quest for happiness and wonders if constant happiness is even a natural state for humans. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction are motivators: they make us want to strive and reach new heights of potential contentment. And sometimes they’re just an inescapable part of life, and that’s okay too – being unhappy does not necessarily mean you’ve failed somewhere.

My question with all this is: where’s all the pressure on men to be happy? A Google search for “studies on men’s happiness” gets me articles like these:

  • “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” – an academic article that might eventually mention men’s happiness, but obviously only in relation to women’s
  • “Elderly men, happiness is easy to find” – a fluffy article that recommends staying busy and fit
  • “Are Men or Women Happier?” – again, men’s happiness is only evaluated in relation to women’s
  • “What Makes Us Happy?” – on a 70 year Harvard study that followed a bunch of male students throughout their lives to answer this question. But it doesn’t treat unhappiness as a problem that needs solving immediately. It’s just seeking to answer the question we’ve all been asking since we had the capacity.

Conversely, a Google search for “studies on women’s happiness” gets me:

  • “Marcus Buckingham: What’s Happening to Women’s Happiness?” Huffington Post talking about the author of Find Your Strongest Life (which Traister cited as an offender on the “pressuring women to be happy” front). A second article from Huffington follows below that, and talks about Buckingham again.
  • “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” shows up again.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich: Are Women Getting Sadder? Or Are We All Just Getting a Lot More Gullible?” – which critiques the study described in the Paradox article and is actually worth reading: “In one well-known psychological experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire on life satisfaction, but only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For a randomly chosen half of the subjects, a dime had been left for them to find on the copy machine. As two economists summarize the results: “Reported satisfaction with life was raised substantially by the discovery of the coin on the copy machine — clearly not an income effect.”
  • “Women are More Unhappy Than Ever” – Slate’s dubious headline (ever? really?) on this phenomenon
  • “Women’s Unhappiness Isn’t So Mysterious After All” – Pandagon takes down the argument that since studies indicate women are less happy since feminism, we’d all be better off in the kitchen speaking when spoken to

Women’s happiness is getting politicized in a way men’s isn’t. If men are happy or not, that’s their problem. But women’s happiness, like our sexuality, is up for public debate. Are we happy, and if not, why not, and won’t someone please think of the women?

Tell me if I’m wrong, but this is how it seems to me: men are pressured to succeed, but nobody really cares if they’re happy or not, and women are pressured to be happy, but nobody really cares if we’re successful. It’s like we win at our jobs, we win with our families, we win with our sexuality, and then someone pipes up: “But are you happy?” If we say no, they’ll dismiss everything we’ve won at. None of that stuff matters if you’re not happy.

Well, actually, maybe it does.

I grew up chronically depressed. I never knew what happy felt like until I was in my early thirties, and I was surprised to find it wasn’t this exultant “YES!” pump-your-fist-in-the-air feeling I’d imagined it would be. A big part of happiness for me turned out to be tackling problems and challenges. I like taking things to the next level, so I will never find myself on a level where I say, “Perfect.” I’d be bored with perfection. Being happy includes cursing at the computer because it won’t do what I’m trying to finagle it into doing. Being happy includes taking a stand and having unpleasant confrontations (the confrontations themselves are depressing, but the alternative – no growth – would be worse).

Isn’t this just like how our bodies are politicized? How we dress and who we dress for and what we weigh and what we’re doing with our bodies is all considered not only appropriate discussion for the masses, but stuff they’re entitled to pass judgment on us for. Our emotional states are our business.


  1. says

    Conversely, self-declared happiness is often used by men as a cultural side-step for life culpability. A guy can fail at everything he ever attempts, halfass every life endeavor or worse, never really try at anything but if he claims to be happy, that’s somehow all okay; being a happy loser is preferable to being a miserable success.

    Maybe it is. Perhaps it’s not. The truth is that happiness, like any feeling, is part of the human experience and no person, man or woman, can be complete without having experienced a wide swath of the emotional spectrum and without having navigated the intricate lattice of motivation, desire and memory that binds those feelings together. To define a person’s worth based on the duration and intensity of a single emotion is simply foolish.

  2. says

    This is why I love this site: I come here to learn. I never thought about the happiness studies that way!

    Also, I want to print the second last paragraph and put it on a poster. Hell yes, for me happiness includes challenges, includes setbacks. Right in between arguing with a creationist for one and a half hours and being terribly frustrated by his “arguments” and his superior smile, I was happy that I was doing this.

  3. SunlessNick says

    “What’s Happening to Women’s Happiness?”

    “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”

    “Are Women Getting Sadder? Or Are We All Just Getting a Lot More Gullible?”

    “Women are More Unhappy Than Ever”

    “Women’s Unhappiness Isn’t So Mysterious After All”

    Are women more unhappy, or is the pressure to be happy – or the bar that marks acceptable happiness – being raised? Is all this talk if happiness a backlash against the idea that women can, and should, value other things as well.

    Isn’t this just like how our bodies are politicized?

    What the Other Patrick said. Learning.

  4. Julie says

    It almost sounds as if all these studies are recommending that Mother’s Little Helpers make a come-back! (MLHs being valium, I believe) 😉

  5. scarlett says

    See, my pet theory is that they started referring to it as diazepam after it got a bad rep in the hope no-one would figure out that it was still valium :p (yeah, we COULD look at more in-depth solutions than overmedicating, OR we could just change the name…)

  6. sbg says

    Frankly, I’m not even sure what the definition of happy is, but I do think it’s not something that can be blanketed for a whole gender. What makes one woman happy could make me miserable, and my happy place could be absolute hell for someone else. I don’t know how reports and studies could ever quantify something that is so individual.

    Also, I think 100% happiness would be frightfully dull.

  7. Dom Camus says

    Whilst I don’t disagree with your very interesting observations here, your search engine experiment isn’t valid as described.

    We live in a world where male things are default. If someone wants to study male happiness they will typically just study happiness in general. Sure enough, if I type “study of happiness” into Google I get a page full of hits and no mention of studying women.

  8. ACW says

    This topic came up in a group discussion a while back, and I strongly feel that we are NOT meant to be happy all the time, but that we are pressured (especially by big pharma) that we should. Agreed – the cure for unhappiness is to set and realize goals, to do something meaningful, whether those are personal, educational, career, or other. In our era of instant gratification, however, it’s just too easy to get a script for happy pills… which have all kinds of side effects (suicidal tendencies for the first month, weight gain, digestive trouble, difficulty sleeping) that – at best – wear us down over time, so good luck feeling good without them!
    Me? I don’t want artificial happiness. I don’t want to be content; I don’t want to sit down and shut up. I want the good and the bad, in order to be able to appreciate both.

  9. says

    Dom Camus: I disagree because what you’re describing is sort of the point, isn’t it? Studying specifically “male happiness” with a gender difference in mind is rare – studying general “happiness” and equating that with male happiness may be normal, but that being normal is kind of fucked up in itself, isn’t it?

  10. Robin says

    My question is this — What is their definition of “happy”? Are they measuring cheerfulness, optimism, contentment, a combination of these factors, or something else entirely? Because I’m fairly content with my life most of the time, but I wouldn’t really describe myself as a happy person. :-\

    And the persistence of the success / happiness prioritization dichotomy is just staggering. As a fan of Mad Men, I see it as it was in the ’60s and understand the reasons it existed back then, but the fact that it’s still assumed to be normal in the psychological community makes me very UNhappy indeed.

  11. says

    Originally Posted By Charles RB
    I read the Traister quote in Daria Morgendorffer’s voice.

    Feel free to read everything I say in her voice. I’ve been told I sound just like her by a number of people. Then there was this creepy episode where she said something like, “Oh, yes, the capitals of fashion: New York, Milan, Paris… and Lawndale.” Only when I had said exactly those words years before the show, I put the town where I lived then in place of Lawndale. But seriously, that was weird.

  12. Charles RB says

    I dunno, some articles might work better in Mr DeMartino’s voice of barely repressed fury.

    I’m partway through the boxset* and I sure notice a lot of times the character’s are being pressured to be happier, do things and have goals, and stop being so down: huge pressure from all sides on our heroine and it just has the opposite effect. This was written over ten years ago, and it wasn’t a revolutionary concept then either. This is ancient. You’d expect that, collectively, we’d have stopped it by now.

    * There’s probably article material in it, thinking about it.

  13. says

    Originally Posted By Charles RB
    a lot of times the character’s are being pressured to be happier, do things and have goals, and stop being so down: huge pressure from all sides on our heroine and it just has the opposite effect. This was written over ten years ago, and it wasn’t a revolutionary concept then either. This is ancient. You’d expect that, collectively, we’d have stopped it by now.

    * There’s probably article material in it, thinking about it.

    Probably. I think Daria was meant to echo Generation X, the “slacker” generation (according to US culture, anyway) who, after being told “You’re going to work twice as hard as your parents for half the money, and that’s just too bad” did not even attempt to compete like our parents had. The Boomers couldn’t understand why we didn’t behave just like them, since it had worked for them. Then they decided to stuff us with anti-depressants* until we conformed, whether we actually suffered clinical depression or not.

    I wonder sometimes if the disconnect between the Boomers and Gen X is bigger than that between most generations. Their outlook on the world and how it works and what they feel entitled to bears no relation to how things are now. Many Boomers totally get how things have changed, but they still have that background of optimism that just didn’t blossom in the post-Watergate generation.

  14. Charles RB says

    It is a product of the time, but a lot of the specific jabs still hold up – and there’s the unexpected bits like Quinn’s inadvertent admission that she doesn’t feel like she’s good at anything besides being shallow and she secretly hates what she’s talking about at times.

  15. Elee says

    See, for me it is easy to be happy. When I am feeling miserable or ragey or tearing up, I just need to tell myself “Yeah, life sucks, poor dear, but are you truly unhappy?” And even if I am still miserable or ragey or or or, I am still very very content (I count being content as one of expressions of happiness) with my life. I just go around my flat and touch all the books I have and think about the fact that I am earning my own money and make my own decisions only for me and then – instant happiness. 😀 People have different goals in life and different MOs, like having problems to tackle makes Jennifer happy but for me would be a personal hell because my life is all about living comfortably. Actually, now I am wondering if a study would focus more on what makes people unhappy, would it confirm the results of the ones you mentioned? Or would they say that exactly the same things make you also unhappy and therefore it is much more interesting to find the reason why what works for one doesn’t work for another (besides personal preferences).

  16. Charles RB says

    Ha, I’ve just seen the episode with the “capitals of fashion” line. The one with an overly vapid fashion magazine editor and Daria being virulently condemned as “bummer culture” for dissenting or pointing out a flaw. It’s like reading this site, only 21 minutes and someone with a unnaturally squeaky voice.

  17. AmyMcCabe says

    Happy itself is such a difficult word. I mean happy as I understand it is a fleeting thing. Happy is what I feel biting a really good chocolate (cliche maybe, but true) or talking to a good friend on the phone. Joyous is what I feel when I found out I was going to be a mom or when I got the job that I really, really wanted. They’re both event-driven momentary and hence fleeting emotions. You can’t be happy all the time, at least not naturally. And you know, I don’t think it is good to be happy all the time either.

    Satisfaction and contentment are more long-term moods. I’m satisfied by that job that I now have. Am I always happy doing it? No. But it offers me challenges that I relish. I can see how I make a difference in the lives of those I work with. I find my job meaningful. I’m content in my marriage and pregnancy. I feel loved, my emotional needs are met and I don’t feel the need to search further for that kind of relationship or aspect of my life. Does that mean I don’t fight with my husband sometimes or have anxieties or discomfort from my pregnancy? Of course not. As a matter of fact, I’ve had a hard time with my pregnancy and I feel miserable a lot.

  18. says

    Excellent post! I hadn’t noticed that difference in tone between the way we discuss men’s and women’s happiness.

    A slightly irrelevant anecdote: a friend of mine bought a packet of biscuits and noticed that the guarantee on the back said “if you are not completely satisfied, write to us”. So he wrote saying that while he very much enjoyed the biscuits, it would be wrong to say he was completely satisfied as there was still a kind of emptiness in his life no biscuit could fill.
    The company, presumably in some confusion, sent him another packet of biscuits.

  19. says

    So he wrote saying that while he very much enjoyed the biscuits, it would be wrong to say he was completely satisfied as there was still a kind of emptiness in his life no biscuit could fill.

    *wipes eyes* THAT ROCKS! OMG, I bet they sent him the other packet just because he cracked them up.

  20. photondancer says

    thanks for the LOL MissPrism! ‘ve always sniffed at those “100% satisfied/happy” lines but never thought of tackling it as directly as your friend did. Although I have to admit an awful lot of Aussies seem to think the secret to happiness is a packet of TimTams :)


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