"Declining Female Happiness" May Be Just Another Way To Sell Shit

Illustration for article titled "Declining Female Happiness" May Be Just Another Way To Sell Shit

In an LA Times editorial, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that all the hue and cry over modern women's unhappiness may be just a ploy to sell us self-help.

We've written a bunch on the specious claims of the study called "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," but Ehrenreich throws in some of her own useful critiques, including the fact that black woman actually seem to be getting happier, and that something as small as finding a dime can throw off the "measurement" of happiness. But her most important new insight is that the happiness study in question has actually been around for a while, and its recent popularity may have more to do with marketing than with truth. She writes,

So why all the sudden fuss about the Stevenson and Wolfers study, which first leaked out two years ago anyway? Mostly because it's become a launching pad for a new book by the prolific management consultant Marcus Buckingham, best known for "First, Break All the Rules" and "Now, Find your Strengths." His new book, "Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently," is a cookie-cutter classic of the positive-thinking self-help genre: First, the heart-wrenching quotes from unhappy women identified only by their e-mail names (Countess1, Luveyduvy, etc.), then the stories of "successful" women, followed by the obligatory self-administered test to discover "the role you were bound to play" (Creator, Caretaker, Influencer, etc.), all bookended with an ad for the many related products you can buy, including a "video introduction" from Buckingham, a "participant's guide" containing "exercises" to get you to happiness, and a handsome set of "Eight Strong Life Plans" to pick from. The Huffington Post has given Buckingham a column in which to continue his marketing campaign.


HuffPo bills Buckingham somewhat breathlessly as a "leading expert in personal strengths," but at first glance his advice doesn't seem particularly terrible. Happy women, he says, focus on moments of fulfillment in their lives, and don't beat themselves up over weaknesses or force themselves to adhere to an artificial standard of "balance." I'll buy that. Problem is, that's exactly what Buckingham wants me to do. His column, "What The Happiest And Most Successful Women Do Differently," concludes with a discussion of his "Strong Life Test." He writes,

[The Strong Life Test] measures you on nine life roles— Advisor, Caretaker, Creator, Equalizer, Influencer, Motivator, Pioneer, Teacher, and Weaver. More than likely, your life calls on you to play all nine roles some of the time, but, even so, you are not a blank slate—your personality doesn't shift and morph according to the demands of every unique situation. Instead, as we all do, you have some consistent patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, patterns that are distinctive and that remain stable across time and situations. These patterns come together in a Lead Role, a role you return to time and again, a role that you and your closest family and friends recognize as the core of who you are. Your Lead Role will help you to know where to look, in any domain of your life (as a spouse, relative, mother, or employee), for the kind of moments that will strengthen you the most, invigorate you the most, bring you joy, excitement, and fun. The Strong Life Test doesn't give you all the answers, but it tells you where to start.

Buckingham may be planning on elaborating on this test in a later column, but for now, you have to buy his book. Whereupon you'll find yet another example of the "better living through categorization" school of self-help. No doubt Buckingham has helped some people, but the fact remains that he and his ilk are basically in the business of slotting people into boxes. Motivator, Pioneer, Teacher, decline in female happiness — all of these are broad, relatively amorphous categories in which lots of people can probably recognize something of themselves. This recognition may be enough to mask the fact that nobody really knows how to make people happier on a large scale. And the things that might work — like, say, affordable health insurance with mental health parity — aren't in the power of self-help authors to provide. Some of these authors may have valuable insights, but mostly, what they have are buzzwords and catchphrases — and "declining female happiness" may just be the latest one of these.

Are Women Unhappier? Don't Make Me Laugh [LA Times]
What The Happiest And Most Successful Women Do Differently [Huffington Post]

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Erin Gloria Ryan

My self help book is called

Fuck It.

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