The Unhappiness Trap

"Why aren't women happy?"

That question has become as ubiquitous and irritating as "What do women want?" Never mind that women are not one homogeneous focus group. Do you ever hear the mainstream media sounding the traffic-boosting sirens of alarm over men's level of unhappiness? No, they're too busy covering their infidelity, violence, and skyrocketing unemployment rates. And if this isn't unhappiness, what is?

But instead of analyzing male malaise, most self-help gurus are more focused on turning women's frowns upside down. Guys like Marcus Buckingham, author of Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, take their show on the road. News anchors and talk-show hosts keep wondering, "Why are American women so grumpy?" Many women, too, still keep falling into the trap of trying to answer that question. In the latest issue of More magazine, feminist writer Naomi Wolf argues that, yes, contemporary women are dissatisfied, but for good reason. We still live in a half-changed world when it comes to the gender revolution we imagined.

Financial equity, political representation, and the male birth-control pill all remain elusive to the modern woman, and though we may have the mirage of shared parenting and more generous beauty standards, most of us have failed to close the gap between our ideals and our daily realities. Furthermore, market forces, as Wolf points out, push women to seek happiness in futile and financially dangerous ways -- buying designer handbags, undergoing cosmetic surgery, purchasing huge homes. Women across America are performing these "cultural happiness scripts," as Wolf calls them, with little real reward.

But there are other kinds of scripts that self-help gurus and even feminist journalists continue to overlook. Wolf notes an interaction in India in which she was reminded of the perils of Western-defined happiness but fails to look any closer to home. Set on deconstructing the dissatisfaction of the women in their own social and economic circles, they neglect to consider women of other ages and races and from different economic strata for a fuller picture of American women's experiences.

Many of the young women I have interviewed and reported on, for example, are finding great happiness at the intersection of self-interest and service. As Wolf argued, they have been taught to trust their own outrage by strong, socially conscious mothers. But that doesn't mean they're, writ large, unhappy. In fact, in fighting inequality that angers them, they earn their own happiness.

Take 27-year-old Dena Simmons. Born and raised in the Bronx, Dena is now attending Teacher's College of Columbia University to pursue her degree in Health and Education. Her dream is to open a center in her home neighborhood. When asked if she was happy, she replied, "I have good people in my life and a strong support network that keep me accountable, resourceful, and fearless at the same time. Because I have such a strong foundation of love and support, I know that no matter what, someone will always have my back, and knowing that keeps me happy."

Emily Abt, 35, is "composing a life," as anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson coined it, out of a stressful but exhilarating mix of filmmaking, teaching, and mothering her baby girl in Brooklyn. Happy? Unequivocally so. She explains, "Happiness for me is a neatly organized drawer, that kick you get when you've made a tough deadline, and the sweet sound of my daughter's cooing."

And Carly Guthrie, a 34-year-old human-resources director in San Francisco, says, "The truth is: I have a great life. I once interviewed a woman for a job, and we got to talking about service and hospitality. When I asked her about her philosophy for what made great service, she said that she believed that essentially a bunch of little ‘wows' make a really big ‘wow.' That's how I feel about my life. I work hard to be grateful and notice the little wows."

So many of the happiest young women I've encountered throughout the nation are adapting "happiness scripts" rooted in the very feminisms that often get blamed for making women so unhappy. Yes, our feminist foremothers taught us to be dissatisfied with the status quo. Thank God! They also taught us to be creative, resourceful, community-minded, and joyful.

In 2007, I published a book called Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, in which I argued that though my generation had been told "You can be anything," we'd misinterpreted the message to be "You must be everything." I've been thrilled to see young women re-imagining the successful female life all over the country since then. They abandon their quests for the ideal resumé or the perfect body and instead seek awesome adventures--working on farms, starting businesses, innovating old nonprofit models. They're also adopting radical and healthier attitudes toward love--choosing to marry or not, procreate or not, according to their own true north.

The scripts by which women from a broad range of demographic backgrounds find our happiness have irrevocably changed. But the media, the motivational speakers, and even our own feminist predecessors seem to be willfully ignoring the evidence of our reinvention. Yes, some women are deeply unhappy, but so many women are not, and it's their stories that we need to start telling if we are going to point the way toward a more representative media.

Even as Wolf tries to beat the drum of different expectations for the modern woman, she's playing a tired tune. "Should we outgrow the oppression of the very idea of ‘perfection'?" she asks, as if for the first time. Meanwhile, so many American women have long been living the inspirational answer.