Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happiness Is. . .

"Happiness is," said a song that was popular when I was a girl, "different things to different people."

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Maurine Dowd noted that the General Social Survey, "which has tracked America's mood since 1972," found that men are getting happier and women are "getting gloomier." Ms. Dowd quotes Marcus Buckingham, a former Gallup researcher and current Huffington Post blogger, as noting that "women begin their lives more fulfilled than men, as they age, they gradually become less happy."

From the women of The View to moms on the playground, opinions about why this state of mid-life malaise abound.
  • Our lives are more crowded with our increased options of family, work, friends
  • Our biology makes us more sensitive, and therefore vulnerable
  • Our culture is youth obsessed, especially as it relates to women

Stretched too thin, feeling responsible for far too many things for time to allow, becoming less and less culturally attractive, who would NOT feel unhappy? In every discussion I've heard, reasons are many, but, as Ms. Dowd concludes, the answer is a paradox.

Perhaps. But, maybe our answer is the fact that we simply do not take time, individually and as a group, to address our unhappiness. Perhaps we have invested our time, energy and resources in others and have left ourselves feeling impoverished. As a person who has earned her living in advising others how to invest their wealth, I now wonder whether the same structure that one uses to develop a portfolio can address this problem. Here is a general example of how this process works.

  • What is your goal? In investment terms, the answer is a number. In life terms, the answer is your response to "What makes you happy?" Answering that question requires enough time to consider what it is that brings you true joy. It's much easier to say, "I don't have time to think about that," than "I don't know what makes me happy." The latter statement is a symptom of not having nurtured oneself. And, over time, that lack of nurturing will likely result in deep unhappiness.
  • What must you do to achieve your goal? In investment terms, this answer requires both sacrifice and risk. Sacrifice involves putting money aside for the future, and risk involves investing in assets which can, as we have all seen lately, fluctuate wildly in short term price, but, over the long term, earn more than inflation. In life terms, we must also be willing to make sacrifices and take risk to get what we want. We must develop a strategy to acquire those things that bring us great joy, whether they be experiences or self expression. We must surround ourselves with those who will help us, and rid ourselves of those who will not. We must cease to think of providing for ourselves as "selfish," and begin to treat ourselves as the valuable beings that we are.
  • What must you do to stay on course? In investment terms, this requires a minimum of an annual check-up to measure progress. In life terms, we must also constantly monitor our progress, and ensure that we do not allow ourselves to feel guilty, unappreciated, dismissed, or any other negative emotion about achieving what it is that we want.

By following this investment structure, we will find that our lives cannot become too crowded for ourselves, because we will filter out that which is not fulfilling our life goal. We will expand our sensitivity to ourselves by putting ourselves first, without a moment's thought that we are being selfish. We are merely nurturing ourselves in order that we can be more nurturing to others. Finally, we will dismiss any assertion that we are not attractive people. We will value ourselves much too highly to think we must look any certain way in order to be attractive. We will define ourselves by our own standards.

Then, we may give our daughters, nieces and young women friends the priceless gift of valuing themselves on their own terms. And, perhaps, like us, they will use their options to achieve happiness as they define it.


  1. Susan B, here. I found it interesting that the General Social Survey measured a downturn in our moods since 1972 ... about the time that more and more of us began making strides in professional equity. So we packed in demanding careers without jettisoning any of the homemaker/caregiver identities -- and all the guilt and obligation that comes with them. Our lives are too full, methinks. Too full of a sense of responsibility for the happiness and well-being of everything and everyone. Your comment is (ahem) right on the money, Kitty. How can we possibly be any good to anyone if we're not good to ourselves? With so many depending upon us, it IS good to be selfish.

  2. I agree, Susan. The Women's Movement gave us options, but not a mandate to pursue every one available to us. "Too full of a sense of responsibility" is a perfect description of many of our lives.
    Let's hope we learn to put ourselves at the top of our own lists.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Kitty,
    I wish my niece and her husband had put the financial house in order. Many of us have tried to guide them, but they are always in a hole and rely on the family to bail them out. This time, the family is not coming through.
    They chose to live above their means, and their "means" was only that of middle class. They chose to spend rather than save and ignore bills. And still they refuse to have a sit down with anyone on these matters. I think if they had been responsible, my niece would not be in the severe depression she is in now because it got so bad she was told to take a month off of work. That's a month's income not coming in.

    This recession has showed us how many people lived above their means and survived on credit. As their professional lives gave them more of an income and less personal time, their private lives tried to keep up appearances.

    So I have to wonder how much of this happiness is based purely on financial decisions rather than professional choices?

  4. Great question. Although women spend more than 70 percent of the worldwide consumer dollar — often the family’s purse strings — their happiness has declined. Controlling family money,however, is very different than controlling funds set aside specifically for a woman herself. It may be that women feel that they are making sacrifices, financially and otherwise, for their family, and are therefore justified in occasionally "splurging" on an expensive handbag or pair of shoes for herself. That unhealthy response to the situation may indeed contribute to racking up debt. Great issue. Thanks for bringing it up.