The Mix

Who's happiest now?

In the fiercely competitive happiness debate, housewives are coming out on top. But maybe happiness isn't the point after all.
America: land of the happy, or so we are led to expect. After all, we've got more food, cars, and luxury goods than any other country on earth. And we've got a right to be happy, don't we? Some people question whether our Constitution guarantees privacy, but no one argues that happiness is up there in the Declaration of Independence, front and center in faded black ink.

But happiness is a strange term. An article this week by Meghan O'Rourke looks at a new study that says that domesticated housewives, stay-at-home wives who don't identify strongly with feminist ideas, identify as happier than married women who work outside the home.

This is the kind of data that's often trumpeted by conservatives as proof that restricting women's rights is actually in their best interests. But "who's happier" is a false question. As O' Rourke points out, the difference in happiness levels could well be a difference in expectations. After all, in this current society, women who don't expect to have control over their reproductive health are less likely to be angry or disappointed when men try to force them to have children. Women who don't mind doing more of the housework (an average of 37 hours per week for married women, whether or not they work outside the home) and don't have to balance that with working full time are more likely to be satisfied as they vacuum, dust, and mop.

Also, the study forgot to mention that single women actually have fewer mental health issues (perhaps a better judge than "happiness") and live longer than married women. Also, apparently, married women have more sexual difficulties than single women or married men. I'm not advocating we should all stay single, just that using happiness or some variation of it as your barometere is a slippery slope.

Happiness is mentioned in the constitution but it's not defined and it's not a legal basis for anything. You can't justify taking away someone's right to contraception, for example, or shooting a person, because it will "make you happy."

I'm all for happiness, but in this case, it's being happiness is a code word for conformity. Those who are the most satisfied with the status quo (even if it's not the best thing for their mental health, their longevity, or their sex life) are those who are most likely to identify themselves as happy.

A new report released this month by the Pew Research Center found that 1/3 of all Americans identify themselves as "very happy." And would you be surprised to learn that most of those extra happy people are rich Republicans. According to the study, rich people are the happiest. And "married people are happier than unmarrieds. People who worship frequently are happier than those who don't. Republicans are happier than Democrats. Rich people are happier than poor people. Whites and Hispanics are happier than blacks. Sunbelt residents are happier than those who live in the rest of the country.

Alas, people who have children are no happier than those who don't. Retirees are no happier than workers. And pet owners are no happier than those without pets."

So what have we learned? To change the question. If everyone has a right to happiness than we're not distributing it evenly. The problem is not that some people have high expectations, but that those whose expectations are met -- who get to live with financial and physical security, free of racism -- tend to identify as "happiest." The question is not are you happy,my dear, but what are the necessary conditions for your happiness. (Psst. That holds true for individual relationships as well as for larger political analysis.)
Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.