Women moan more than men, but it means deep down we are hap­pier

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIVING - By ZOE STRIMPEL

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.

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