Women moan more than men, but it means deep down we are happier
Having removed most immediate existential threats from our lives, from conscription to cholera, the British — like many in the West — have become preoccupied with the nebulous concept of “happiness”. The result of focussing on the selfabsorbing pursuit of personal happiness? Curiously, but not entirely surprisingly: misery. And so, in time for the high festive season, a new report by the NHS says that Britons have never been more miserable.
It could probably have been left there; but the report was, in fact, about gender, insisting that it’s women who are the most miserable. Married women in middle age are most likely to be in the mental doldrums, with 24 per cent aged between 45 and 54 classifiable as mentally ill (the number for men in this bracket is presumably a fair bit lower). Young women between 16 and 24 are twice as likely as their male counterparts to have a mental disorder. But, small comfort, the report states that it all changes when women get to 85; their menfolk have died off seems to have a cheering effect and they become less rather than more miserable than men.
Yes: women have long ended up in marriages with men who ultimately drain them of vitality — widowhood for these is indeed a blessing. Specifically, copious research has suggested that marriage is better for men than women, which hardly seems like rocket science when one considers traditional marital responsibilities. The sheer hard graft of dutifully delivering relentless shifts of paid and unpaid work that shaped so many women’s conjugal careers has hardly been a recipe for joy.
All the same, while this study meant well in highlighting women’s unique burdens, it is also deeply misleading. Bad marriages aside (anyway, since about 1970 women have been able to simply end bad marriages without waiting for widowhood), it’s just not right to think that women are actually, in real terms, “more miserable” than men.
The difference, as countless studies have shown, is that women are socialised to share their grievances, to be more pro-active in seeking help, and to feel less shame in admitting illness or weakness than men. The suicide rate among men is one of the tragic reflections of this fact, with three times as many men committing suicide in Britain than women. Men often struggle with their demons in a more lonely and less productive fashion than women.
So I’m afraid that men are the miserable ones. Women may get together and moan about life; or even, in the more serious cases outlined by this study, seek help for “mental disorders” in greater numbers. But have you ever eavesdropped on male conversations, especially those among friends? Banter, remarks, joshing — sometimes debate — and not a lot else. When my boyfriend of four years and I broke up in July 2016, one of his closest friends didn’t know about it until I told him. Eventually they went for a drink and, according to his friend, the following exchange occurred: Friend: “I hear you and Zoe broke up”. Ex: “Oh. yes”. Friend: “I’m sorry to hear it”. Ex: “Yes. Thanks”. Both: awkward silence.
Men stifle. They appear to be happy, but only a fool would think complete denial and repression is a recipe for happiness. By contrast, when the relationship with this ex came to an end, I cried and wailed for days, seeking solace in a gaggle of different friends, and my therapist. It was cathartic, instructive and helpful and, having expunged my misery, I moved on.
Mourning a breakup isn’t a mental disorder, but it’s part of the same question: how the sexes deal with their feelings. Women are still far more equipped in this regard than men. That we externalise our sorrows and stresses may make us seem more miserable than men, but look deeper and the opposite is true.
Yes, women do have reasons to be miserable, at least in the short term. Young women experience new crushing pressures to look thin and perfect, and our bodies can cause us complex and sometimes grisly forms of discomfort and pain (from period pains to post-parturition horrors). The burdens of parenting fall hardest on us physiologically and emotionally. But again, this is not the whole picture. The bon mot: “no pain no gain” has it about right. Women’s pains may be greater than men’s, but the rewards — the thrill and power of being young and beautiful; the pleasures of motherhood and the enrichment of truly fulfilling relationships with a wide range of people — surely outweigh them at all ages.