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Category: Feminism, Media

“Why Aren’t You Smiling, Honey?”

| October 22, 2009

The media and the blog world have been discussing women’s “happiness” quotient since a headlined Huffington Post item offered cumulated poll data indicating they weren’t. The author, who writes about and speaks to women now in their fifties and sixties, reports that she hears quite a different story.

In a country that gorges on “happy meals” and concludes correspondence with a “smiley face,” it is safe to suggest that happiness has been devalued as a meaningful state of mind. Asking about it is like asking “How are you?” Fine. Nevertheless Marcus Buckingham, who describes himself as “leading expert in personal strengths and best-selling author,” decided to assemble all known happiness surveys (On a scale of 1 to 3, how happy are you?) and report on Huffington Post that his evidence proved that women have been getting less and less happy over the last 40 years—while men were getting happier and happier.

Arianna Huffington introduced his findings in a post headlined “The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling.” “It doesn’t matter what their marital status is, how much money they make, whether or not they have children, their ethnic background, or the country they live in,” she wrote. “Women around the world are in a funk.”

Maureen Dowd (in a column entitled “Blue is the New Black”) picked up on the interpretation and concluded, “The more women have achieved, the more they seem aggrieved.” Then she posed a question: “Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women?”

Indeed, the time span Buckingham is analyzing coincides with an emergence of the women’s movement. And he too wonders whether feminism has backfired on women. After all the gains women have made, he queries, why aren’t we happy? It must be, he suggests, that independence and accomplishment don’t buy happiness. All they buy us is more stress. “Choice is inherently stressful,” he observes. “And women are being driven to distraction.”

This argument fits right in with the anti-feminist conviction that women have become less feminine over those years and less lovable, less loved, and less honored for what they do. In this universe, happiness is the mother/housewife/secretary of the “Mad Men” series. Back then, women were so happy that they smiled all the time and if they didn’t, men demanded to know why. (“Why aren’t you smiling, honey?” was a familiar taunt back when we were engaged in the serious business of protesting the limitations on women’s lives.)

I have spent most of my life growing up with and reporting on those women, and now that we are in our fifties and sixties, I am hearing not about stress and disappointment but about a joyous, totally new stage of life. Fifty IS the New Fifty—the title of my latest book—is a response to the assumption that if a woman is feeling good at fifty it must be because she is enjoying “the new thirty!” as if recapturing youth were the only goal of older women.

Whenever I talk to groups of women, I ask if any of them would like to be back there at thirty. I get roars of denial and laughter. They go on to tell me how amazed they are not to be demoralized by aging, despite the stereotype. And despite the contempt the culture we live in has for older women. Instead they find themselves full of energy, optimism, confidence, daring, satisfaction and leading lives full of love, companionship, and discovery.

Now, to be honest, I never asked them if they were “happy,” but I have asked them about love, work, family, friends, adventure, the future, and I know that they feel positive about where they are now. (This, by the way, is not the case for men, despite Buckingham’s claim. Public health experts are alarmed at the increase in depression and suicide of men as they age.)

Sure, we have regrets—about some choices we made (although we are grateful that we had choices) and many we were forced to make. And we know about stress. Caretaking is still a do-it-yourself proposition in this country, whether you are caring for children as my generation did or caring for aging parents as we are now. Still, we are healthier, more competent, more engaged in the world, more satisfied with our relationships than any generation before us. We feel so good now because unlike our mothers, we are entering these years knowing that we are going to make something of them and ourselves. We have a lot more living and loving to do. Put a smiley face on that!