02.21.10

What Makes Women Happy?

In a new book, Ariel Gore set out to answer the question of what makes her and other women happy. Marisa Meltzer discusses with her what she learned.

A new book by Ariel Gore set out to answer the question of what makes her and other women happy. Marisa Meltzer discusses with her what she learned.

Is there anything more American than the pursuit of happiness? From Dale Carnegie to Elizabeth Gilbert, we're a nation obsessed with finding happiness. Defining it, however, has proven to be more elusive.

Most books about happiness start out with the premise that happiness itself resists definition. Ariel Gore, author of Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, wanted to begin her book with a clear description of the feeling. "I wanted to start somewhere and not have the cop-out that you know it when you see it," she says from her Portland, Oregon, home. "I define happiness as the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering."

Gore, who is the founder of the indie magazine Hip Mama and the author of several parenting books, a novel, and a memoir, was inspired to delve into that elusive emotion when she found out that a class on the study of happiness was one of the most popular classes at Harvard. She decided to research the subject, particularly how it pertains to women, by interviewing hundreds, talking to experts ranging from scholars and psychologists to service workers and artists, and evaluating her own life.

“Women,” Gore says, “have been socialized really differently with happiness and cheerfulness and our place in the world.”

She found that most happiness studies were authored by men but that women, especially mothers, were often left out. So she asked a group of women to record their thoughts in a happiness journal, answering questions like, "What could make you happier?" The results were highly individual: One women thought it was moving to Vermont and having a farm; another wanted to move back to the city.

book-cover---bluebird
Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness By Ariel Gore 208 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24. ()

Gore writes that happiness "isn't the opposite of sadness. Happiness doesn't require us to suppress our other emotions or emotional states. Happiness often creeps up on us unexpectedly, but it can be an act of will—a choice. We don't have to be happy. Sometimes we choose happiness."

"If you want to get scientific," Gore says, "the psychologists and scientists say 30 percent [of happiness] is circumstantial: based on how much our lives look like we want them to look,  whether we're married or not, or have kids or not. Fifty percent is your nature, which seems a little high to me. And then there's a little portion left—20-40 percent—that we can control."

Some of her findings seem, at first glance, counterintuitive. She writes about the research of the American psychologist Martin Seligman: "When mothers are asked what brings them the most joy in life, they tend to respond without hesitation, 'My kids.' But when asked to keep a daily record of individual moments of joy, women report that they're actually happier reading, hanging out with friends, watching TV, or even doing the dishes than they are when interacting with their children." Gore, whose personal anecdotes scattered through the book keep the book from feeling overly academic, notes that she "could relate to both realities. Parenting, the source of daily heartbreaks and annoyances, has for me become a body of memory and experience that provides a sense of purpose that seems to cradle my general contentment."

The things that make us happy, she says, are things we don't get enough of. She gives the example of the appearance of the sun in Portland to be enough to make the whole city happy, but not in L.A., where her daughter currently lives.

It's ultimately about finding a balance between different kinds of happiness. "Someone asked me if yoga was selfish," she laughs. "But then I happened to be in yoga and the teacher—you know, they blah-blah all the time—says she likes yoga because she can't think about anybody else while she's doing it? Is focusing on yourself the same as selfish?"

That's a key difference in the way women and men experience happiness. "Women," Gore says, "have been socialized really differently with happiness and cheerfulness and our place in the world." She has her own close call with cheer when she tells an anecdote about how her daughter decided to become a cheerleader, "I know you might not support my decision," she tells Gore, who writes that she is often mistaken for nationalities other than American while traveling abroad for her own lack of pep.

Besides gender disparities, she explores the class issues of happiness. There's an argument to be made that happiness might not come so easily to those who are economically or socially oppressed, but Gore is dismissive. "The psychology and study of happiness can't focus on privileged people—that's what gives it a bad rap and says that happiness is for morons," she says. Though she does think happiness has been marketed as a byproduct of middle-class life. "You know, 'Without this brand of dishwasher, I can't be happy,'" she laughs. She thinks that the Dalai Lama is "the face" of happiness.

While writing the book, she found her own happiness shift. She attributes it to "the simple practice of focusing on it. Paying attention to it every day increased it," Gore says. "Tragic things happen all the time. I would be in denial if I didn't think that suffering was all around me, but I learned that my happiness wasn't dependent on all that's around me. I can now laugh at the things that made me grumpy."

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Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book Girl Power will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.