ARE WOMEN RE­ALLY UNHAPPIER THAN MEN?

The re­search says they are. Sharon Stephen­son meets four Kiwi women at dif­fer­ent stages of life to see where they sit on the hap­pi­ness spec­trum.

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The re­search says they are. Sharon Stephen­son meets four Kiwi women at dif­fer­ent stages of life to see where they sit on the hap­pi­ness spec­trum

Let’s play a game. I in­tro­duce you to a ran­dom group of white-col­lar work­ers and of­fer you a mil­lion dol­lars if you can pick the hap­pi­est per­son in the room. Who would you choose — a man or a woman? A mar­ried or sin­gle per­son? Some­one with or with­out kids?

Ac­cord­ing to an Amer­i­can sur­vey, your odds of walk­ing away with the cash in­crease if you by­pass ev­ery woman in the room and fo­cus on a 39-year-old mar­ried male in a se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tion with a young child, a wife who works part-time and a house­hold in­come of be­tween $150,000 and $200,000.

Con­versely, the 2012 Of­fice Pulse Sur­vey claimed that the 42-year-old pro­fes­sional, un­mar­ried woman with a house­hold in­come un­der $100K was the un­hap­pi­est hu­man in the room.

An anom­aly? Not so, says an­other sur­vey, this time from across the At­lantic, where Bri­tain’s Na­tional Heath Ser­vice found women are more mis­er­able than men for most of their lives, be­com­ing hap­pier only af­ter the age of 85.

“We usu­ally see hap­pi­ness de­velop over life as a U-curve,” says Meik Wik­ing, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Copen­hagen’s Hap­pi­ness Re­search In­sti­tute. “One the­ory is that we be­come bet­ter at pri­ori­tis­ing what mat­ters most, choos­ing what will im­prove our hap­pi­ness.”

To rub salt into this gap­ing wound, women ap­par­ently be­gin their lives more ful­filled than men but, as they age, they grad­u­ally be­come less happy (men, in con­trast get hap­pier as they get older).

So here’s the thing: we’re health­ier, wealth­ier, more ed­u­cated and lib­er­ated, have wider choices, broader hori­zons and more free­dom over our sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health than any other gen­er­a­tion of women in his­tory, not to men­tion sur­pass­ing men in grad­u­a­tion rates, life ex­pectancy and even job se­cu­rity. But ap­par­ently we’re still bloody mis­er­able.

In a re­port en­ti­tled “The Para­dox of De­clin­ing Fe­male Hap­pi­ness”, US econ­o­mists Bet­sey Steven­son and Justin Wolfers found there were a num­ber of rea­sons for this, in­clud­ing the so-called “sec­ond shift” (the idea that many women jug­gle two full-time jobs, one in the work­force and an un­paid, “sec­ond shift” at home), the gen­der pay gap, the pres­sure to live up to to­tally un­re­al­is­tic ideals of per­fec­tion, the de­cline of the two-par­ent fam­ily and the be­lief that per­haps fem­i­nism has failed (noted in the re­port as, “Women have been pres­sured into life­styles that run counter to their bi­o­log­i­cal, nur­tur­ing and egal­i­tan im­per­a­tives”).

Con­tro­ver­sially, the de­ci­sion to have chil­dren was also a rea­son. “Across the hap­pi­ness data, one thing in life that will make you less happy is hav­ing kids,” wrote Steven­son. “That’s true whether you’re rich or poor, if you have kids early or late.”

Here in New Zealand we don’t mea­sure hap­pi­ness as such but the 2016 Gen­eral So­cial Sur­vey showed that the ma­jor­ity of us (around 83 per cent) are sat­is­fied with life (although it’s not bro­ken down by gen­der). We were also ranked the eighth hap­pi­est na­tion in the 2017 World Hap­pi­ness Re­port.

But how happy re­ally is half of New Zealand’s pop­u­la­tion? We chat­ted to four Kiwi women at dif­fer­ent ages and stages of life to find out where on the hap­pi­ness spec­trum they sit.

Suzanne McNa­mara, 55

The day we speak, Suzanne McNa­mara is busy pack­ing her son Con­nor’s bags and won­der­ing if Hall­mark makes a greet­ing card for empty nesters.

Con­nor is mov­ing to Otago Univer­sity and it’s the first time the Mt Al­bert home McNa­mara shares with her hus­band Ian Grant will be a child-free zone (his adult chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage have long moved out).

“It’s go­ing to be just us and Scooby the dog,”

says McNa­mara. “I have mixed feel­ings about be­ing an empty nester.”

In ev­ery other way, the co-di­rec­tor of PR firm Cadence Com­mu­ni­ca­tions says the past decade — with its con­flu­ence of age, wis­dom and clar­ity — has been her hap­pi­est yet. “My mar­riage is great, my fam­ily life is sta­ble, I have good friends and con­trol over my ca­reer. I’ve had jobs that weren’t al­ways happy but fi­nally hav­ing the con­fi­dence to row my own boat has been a great source of hap­pi­ness.”

Although McNa­mara knows some­thing of the flip-side: the youngest of five chil­dren lost her mother to a brain haem­or­rhage when she was just 3 years old. Her den­tist fa­ther con­tin­ued to work full-time while her old­est sis­ter, who was 15 at the time, had to give up school to raise her sib­lings.

While it wasn’t a dys­func­tional child­hood, McNa­mara says it was un­usual. “There was no real dis­ci­pline, I had to deal with things like my brothers bul­ly­ing me with­out any­one stop­ping it.”

Her fa­ther died when she was 21 and McNa­mara says she dealt with it by es­cap­ing to the US, where she was a ski in­struc­tor. “I wish there had been grief coun­selling back then be­cause I might have got through it ear­lier. In­stead, it took me a good decade to get over Dad’s death.”

Things turned around when she met Ian, at age 34.

“Hav­ing a blended fam­ily was chal­leng­ing at times. But my age-group was the first to be told we could have it all — ca­reers, fam­ily and look great while do­ing so. It’s a lot of pres­sure to put on women.”

Deb­bie Har­ri­son, 36

Pinned above the com­puter in Deb­bie Har­ri­son’s home of­fice is a piece of pa­per with these hastily scrib­bled words, “The hap­pi­est peo­ple don’t have the best of ev­ery­thing in life, they sim­ply make the most of what they have.”

Some­thing to live by? Yes, says Har­ri­son, the mother of Piper, 7, and Dea­con, 5, who runs a bou­tique mar­ket­ing agency, Ca­sual Fri­days, with hus­band Cameron from their Green­hithe home.

Har­ri­son is prob­a­bly the most re­lent­lessly pos­i­tive per­son I’ve ever met. But less in an eye-roll kind of way and more “I want some of what she’s hav­ing”.

“This is prob­a­bly the hap­pi­est I’ve ever been,” say Har­ri­son, by phone from some­where on the Western Mo­tor­way as she drives to a client meet­ing. “I’ve al­ways been a glass-half-full per­son and en­thu­si­as­tic about life, but my 30s re­ally have been the best — I’ve got a lov­ing, sup­port­ive part­ner, healthy kids and an ex­tended fam­ily who pro­vide un­con­di­tional love. I’m also sur­rounded by peo­ple who aren’t ob­sessed about ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions and that makes a real dif­fer­ence to my hap­pi­ness — I don’t feel judged or like I have to be some­thing else to be ac­cepted.”

Hav­ing a “real pur­pose” in her ca­reer also helps. “I love what I do and I know that not ev­ery­one has that lux­ury, but it’s not some­thing I feel smug about. I’ve worked hard to en­gi­neer this busi­ness, cre­at­ing an en­tity that works for my­self and my fam­ily”.

It hasn’t al­ways been all sun­beams and uni­corns: Ro­torua-born Har­ri­son says ado­les­cence and her early 20s pro­duced the usual self-doubt and anx­ious­ness that many women ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Nav­i­gat­ing my way though study and first jobs was a process of try­ing to fig­ure out who I was and my place in the world. But now I couldn’t care less who likes me, as long as my fam­ily does!”

Har­ri­son be­lieves so­cial me­dia has a lot to an­swer for in terms of women’s hap­pi­ness.

“We need to learn to be hap­pier with what we’ve got and who we are, rather than yearn­ing for what oth­ers have. And to stop be­ing so hard on our­selves, be­cause no one is judg­ing us as much as we judge our­selves.”

Ni­cole LaBarge, 40

It’s quiet at Ni­cole LaBarge’s sea­side Welling­ton home. The kind of quiet that comes with a con­scious de­ci­sion not to have chil­dren. The Wis­con­sin-born IT con­sul­tant isn’t con­vinced by re­search that says hav­ing kids makes you un­happy; all she knows is that it’s worked for her.

“A con­ven­tional life was never in my DNA and I’ve cho­sen not to have chil­dren so that I can travel the world and have ad­ven­tures,” says LaBarge. It’s some­thing her Kiwi part­ner Dar­ryl agreed with when they met in 2005.

In­stead, life has led LaBarge down path­ways lined with air­line tick­ets and ex­otic ex­pe­ri­ences. At last count, she’d vis­ited 115 coun­tries and hopes to knock the re­main­ing 78 off in the next few decades.

“I’ve been pas­sion­ate about travel since I vis­ited France as a teenager,” says LaBarge, who runs a web­site for solo fe­male trav­ellers when she’s not work­ing as a self-em­ployed con­trac­tor.

“I’ve con­sciously pri­ori­tised my life so I’m able to do things such as spend six months in Africa trav­el­ling and vol­un­teer­ing on con­ser­va­tion projects. Hap­pi­ness is a choice and I’m prob­a­bly hap­pier now that I’ve ever been.”

It’s hard to imag­ine LaBarge ever be­ing un­happy; she’s funny, chatty and great com­pany, pulling sto­ries from her end­less reser­voir of on-the-road ex­pe­ri­ences.

In fact, she has to think hard when I ask when life wasn’t so good. It turns out it was the year she spent in Ja­pan when she was 26.

“I’d come from liv­ing in Lon­don for two years, which I loved, to a place that was re­ally not me. Work­ing long hours and try­ing to fit into a cul­ture that would never ac­cept me was hard work. I’m ac­tu­ally sur­prised I lasted that long.”

These days, LaBarge be­lieves hap­pi­ness is a choice. “I’ve re­alised that you have to find it in the ev­ery­day, other­wise you’ll go mad.

“Pre­vi­ously, my life was all about count­ing

down to the next trip in­stead of en­joy­ing the mo­ment. Now it’s about ap­pre­ci­at­ing wher­ever I am right now.”

The key, she says, is to find what makes you happy and do it. “We all have bad days but if some­thing doesn’t make you happy, then change it. And don’t wait for the per­fect time to do so, start now.”

Hari­ata Hema, 62

Life in 1990 didn’t look too flash for Hari­ata Hema. She was a sin­gle mother of two, jug­gling a law de­gree and try­ing not to tip into bank­ruptcy.

“It was prob­a­bly the un­hap­pi­est time of my life,” says the Welling­to­nian, who now has four grand­chil­dren. “There wasn’t much money and jug­gling solo moth­er­hood with full-time study was tough. I strug­gled a lot but my only op­tion was to keep go­ing.”

Once Hema grad­u­ated and went on to HR man­age­ment roles, life im­proved. In 2004 she mar­ried Hamish, an en­gi­neer, and eight years later re­tired from full-time work. These days, she’s like a hu­man Be­rocca, fizzing with hap­pi­ness.

Get­ting older helps, she says, as does hav­ing good health, love in her life and things she en­joys do­ing. “I work as a life coach and do vol­un­tary work, which al­lows me to use my skills and make a con­tri­bu­tion. I also have more leisure time than I did when I worked full-time, so I have the chance to do stuff that’s mean­ing­ful to me, such as rid­ing my bike and go­ing to the movies.”

Read­ing is also a source of plea­sure (the day we speak Hema had just fin­ished read­ing all the Man Booker Prize con­tenders), one she didn’t have as a child grow­ing up in Wairoa.

“I was one of 10 kids and although it was a happy home, it didn’t have books. It wasn’t un­til I got older that I re­alised how im­por­tant read­ing is to me.”

Hema ad­mits that de­spite the free­dom she has to plan her days, life isn’t al­ways per­fect.

“It’s part of the hu­man con­di­tion to have chal­lenges, it’s how we grow, but as you get older, you learn not to let them de­rail you. It’s also about the qual­ity of your re­la­tion­ships and es­pe­cially your re­la­tion­ship with your­self. I care less what oth­ers think of me as I age, and I find I also need fewer ma­te­rial things to make me happy.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Hema dis­putes the sur­vey’s find­ings, say­ing she’s be­come hap­pier as she’s aged.

“There’s a lot to be un­happy about in the world but I’m pretty happy, so I’d imag­ine my hap­pi­ness rat­ing will be off the charts by the time I turn 85.”

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