Ask yourself: what do you want for your life? The most common answer? To strive to live a life that brings the greatest joy; that is, the goal of being happy. The good news for your virtuous endeavor? The pursuit of life happiness is your basic and inalienable right. Thanks to the know-how of the American Founding Fathers, we are all entitled to live the life we choose, and to do so freely and happily. This seems like a simple task – to live a fulfilling life liberally and do so, for the most part, smiling. While two out of the three Constitutional tenets seem fairly straight forward, what about the last – the pursuit of happiness? Do any of us really understand what it means to be happy?
Thankfully, science is helping to unmask the mystery. Biological factors, including genetics, do play a role in the presentation of happiness; a recent documentary simply entitled “Happy” has suggested that approximately half of happiness is biological factored. For example, a new study at the University of Florida identified a gene that is linked to increased levels of happiness in women.
Research by Dr. Edward Diener, one of the leading experts in the field referred to as “positive psychology”, has identified that happiness is a comprehensive societal phenomena, based on a number of factors. Among the most imporant criteria for happiness is the interpersonal connection with others, and a sense of community. Work by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has identified three important components of happiness: engagement, or involvement with others and tasks; meaning, or the superior purpose we serve; and pleasure. Surprisingly, engagement and meaning have a much stronger bearing on overall happiness than pleasure.
What does this mean? After genetics, life circumstances, including income, education, social and marital status, place of origin, past experiences, health, and gender account for a mere 10% of our total happiness. The remainder of our happiness, a whole 40%, is the result of intentional activities, defined as a wide range of variable behavioural, cognitive, and motivational acts we choose to engage in each and everyday. What this suggests is that after we account for basic life needs, much of our happiness is characterized intrinsically and often achieved in connection with others. Put simply, money really doesn’t buy happiness.
Yet, research has also suggested that women are becoming increasingly unhappy over time. A 2009 study by Stevenson and Wolfers suggested that women’s subjective happiness has declined over the past 35 years, despite large objective gains resulting from the women’s movement. Their findings remain consistent regardless of income, marital status, race, and in relation to other industrialized nations. Most startling, the subjective happiness of women, which was higher in the 1970′s, had slipped below that of men.
Thinking rationally, there are a number of reasonable explanations for this finding. Jillian Hewitt of Feministe wonders whether women in the 1970′s measured their overall happiness unaware of what they were missing resulting from gender inequality. Perhaps, as Katha Pollitt of the Nation suggests, we “are simply becoming a bit more honest” and able to communicate our discontent more freely. Conceivably, women are more aware of the misogyny that constantly surrounds us; the plight of social media makes it relatively impossible to escape the daily occurances of androcentrism (see recent ‘legitimate rape’ comments as an example). Or associatively, we are, as Elizabeth Schulte suggests, not unhappy but angry. Whether we are less happy or not, this is one study seeking an answer to a highly subjective and complex concept using a survey. One finding alone cannot speak to the reasons millions of women around the world feel the way they do; we need to take such results with a heaping grain of salt.
However, some have not, and have blamed feminism for the unhappiness of women worldwide. Ross Douthat of the New York Times notes that “all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness”, suggesting that women may prefer ‘low-risk societies’ and perhaps a ‘social stigma’ is necessary as the ever-rising rates of single mothers “threatens the interests and happiness of women”. Marcus Buckingham, proclaimed self-help guru and Huffington Post contributor conveniently suggests that women are struggling to lead a happy life even though we have countless “opportunities and achievements”. By the logic of these two authors, and countless others who have commented on the results of this investigation, the liberation of women and the women’s movement in general leads to unhappiness.
My logic sees this discussion very differently. Thomas Jefferson wrote that famous line of the Constitution purposefully. People are born and granted liberty, and provided the opportunity to pursue their own subjective happiness. Thus, freedom is a ‘prerequisite’ - in order to be happy we require our liberty.
This freedom from domination is the very essense of feminism.
The science of happiness tells us that much of our happiness is achieved by remaining engaged, interpersonally connected, and acting in intentional and meaningful ways. Feminism is that purposeful action that studies tell us is so important for our happiness – it provides the route to an extention of our community; we are connected in womanhood and a common desire for equality.
The very act of feminism is both meaningful and engaged. Those who say women are unhappy at the hands of feminism fail to realize that the reason why we continue the movement is because many of sisters are still suffering (see Soraya’s powerful article as an example of this). We become feminists because it scares us to think about being in a place where our freedom is compromised, or that anyone should have to suffer unneccessarily. We fight for other people’s rights because the opppression of one woman is the domination of all women. Feminism is the pathway to happiness, not just for me but for all peoples.
Feminism makes me happy because it provides me a greater purpose above my life circumstances, allows me to feel connected to a fearless community, but most importantly, because it gives me hope. This hope is not just for living a good life, but also hope that the women of Afghanistan, Syria, India, and all over the world can live good lives too.
I’ll keep fighting for that, and do it with a smile.