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.
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.”