Why are women so miserable?

Many women today have it better than ever, so why are they so sad? Laura Collins analyses the epidemic of sadness.

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Three little words. That's all it takes. Three little words that articulate a thought that pops into the mind unbidden and changes everything - or at least tries to. It marks a subtle but seismic shift, almost imperceptible yet irreversible once made:

Is this it?

In recent decades the lives of women in the industrialised world have improved by many objective measures. The gender wage gap, though still present, has diminished greatly. Women's educational achievements now surpass those of their male counterparts. Birth control and in vitro fertilisation have given them unprecedented control over reproduction. Technological advances have freed many from domestic drudgery. In short, we've never had it so good.

Yet apparently we've never been so flipping miserable.

On paper, it's all good and getting better. In reality, the women best placed to benefit from this world of expanding opportunities just don't feel it. Quite the opposite.

In fact, according to the most recent studies, women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relatively to that of men. This is "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," as identified by American academics Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in their landmark paper of that name. It was published just over two years ago but subsequent surveys have done nothing to counter their conclusions; one went as far as to identify a "female unhappiness epidemic". At a glance it doesn't make much sense. But then feelings have a habit of defying logic, and it would be hard to imagine anything more subjective than an individual's sense of her own happiness and well-being.

Truth be told, you don't need academic studies to illuminate some of the issues, nor a raft of case studies to pinpoint the pressures and anxieties at play. Just talk to your female friends. Talk to the career girl agonising over whether she should have a child - has she left it too late? Does she want one at all? Is it a mistake to have one or a mistake not to? Talk to the stay-at-home mother (mothers always come with a qualification - stay-at-home, working, teenage, earth, pushy, single - as if simply being a mother weren't enough) worrying that her life has somehow dwindled with motherhood, bored and guilty that her children aren't enough for her. Talk to the single girl wondering about marriage. Talk to the married woman wondering how - if - she can escape a situation of her own choosing.

Talk to any of these and you will find women who ought to be happy and are well aware of that fact. Women who should want for nothing yet find themselves yearning. Women whose lives are so apparently blessed that to admit unhappiness is tantamount to blasphemy. These are the women who, now more than ever, are looking at their career, or their family, or their husband and finding something lacking.

These are the women wondering: "Is this it?"

So what's the problem? Have we become just a little spoiled? If, in the absence of objective causes, things don't quite come up to scratch, must we suck it up and resign ourselves to a life of minor discontent, or are we a small adjustment away from being happy?

Well, according to the psychologist and author Dorothy Rowe, the answer is all of the above - sort of.

"Happiness should be appropriate to your situation," she explains. "There are certain situations that you'd have to be insane to be happy in - extreme poverty, hunger, violence and so on. But if we're not talking about that and we're talking about something more subtle, it's missing the point to look at a situation and say, 'I have all this. I should be happy.' The point is if you're not, then it's often to do with expectation. So adjust your expectations or alter your situation."

This might sound harsh, but the truth is that expectations are the silent prompt behind that nagging "Is this it?" and all the dissatisfaction that reveals. Little wonder, then, that one of the key observations made by Stevenson and Wolfers was that, "If the women's movement raised women's expectations faster than society was able to meet them, they would be more likely to be disappointed by their actual experienced lives".

Let's face it: it would be hard for any reality to outstrip or even keep pace with the expectations and pressures women place on themselves, their lives and the lives of others.

In their brilliant book, Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, the writers Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine attempt to expose and debunk some of the myths that provide the fertile ground that foments this female malaise.

Life - and their multiple roles in it - is "still complicated for women", according to Kindersley and Vine.

We expect romantic love and marriage to be "the cure for everything". We buy the fantasy, and the reality comes as a jarring shock. We complicate our relationship with food - placing thinness next to godliness while believing that, whatever else is going on in our life, we are not a complete woman if incapable of rustling up a complicated dinner for friends, family, lovers, etc.

For all the opportunities that a career may offer, and all the desire to achieve that a woman may possess, many of us still squirm at the notion of "ambition". Historically, the wisdom was that it was men who were built for such professional glory and, however outdated that may be, it lingers on. And when it comes to men, though it may not be politically correct to say this, the truth is we ask an awful lot of them. Among the many demands the modern woman places on the modern man those identified by Kindersley and Vine include that he be "...strong yet sensitive, decisive yet open minded, gentle yet determined. There must be a Good Sense of Humour". Dancing and dressing well are optional extras, but "devoutly to be wished for".

Stevenson and Wolfers's study on declining female happiness points out: "The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one's life is not measuring up. Similarly, women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment."

We set our expectations sky high, then wonder that life fails to meet up to them. And when it doesn't we turn wildly, blindly, to self-help books. Women who would never dream of buying so much as a T-shirt labelled one-size-fits-all willingly look for a catch-all solution to their most complicated psychological angst. So we buy the book and we buy the notion that anything is possible if we only want it enough. And when we discover that anything isn't possible, that sometimes it doesn't matter how much we want it, we just don't have the talent to become a prima ballerina at the age of 35 or craft exquisite porcelain figurines when our only previous creative achievement was a Plasticine coin-pot in kindergarten, we feel failures and miserable and wonder all over again: "Is this it?"

According to Rowe, "I often write: 'That's life', and it causes outrage. The thing about life is the more security you have, the less freedom you have. And on the flip-side the more freedom you have, the less security you have.

"One of the things you have to learn is that life is uncertain. You can hope for various things but, if you think about it, hope is only possible where life is uncertain."

The myth of Having It All is just that - a myth. What women have are choices, and choices mean making decisions, and making decisions means experiencing the occasional doubt.

Every advance comes at a price and, to some extent, the most difficult decision of all is working out whether you are prepared to pay it.

So, is this it? Must the complexity and pressures of women's modern lives come at the cost of our happiness? Well, no, of course not.

But happiness is a by-product of what you're doing. It cannot be forced any more than love can. It doesn't matter how fulfilled you ought to feel. If you're not, then there is nothing for it but to recognise that fact and try to work out why you're not. According to Rowe: "Lots of people won't do that because they're afraid. So many women stay in miserable relationships before summoning up the courage to walk out, because when you break up, in the vast majority of cases, the woman ends up substantially worse off. And whatever issues are at play, a lot of women daren't change their lives in whatever respect for fear of upsetting people - family, friends, colleagues, parents... you name it.

"But if you want to be happy, it's a matter of identifying 'What do I enjoy?' and bringing it into your life. Work out what makes you happy, what absorbs you."

Part of the reason so many women report feeling unhappy in apparently happy situations is the fact that to be happy you have to be a bit selfish - something that flies in the face of historical notions of the woman as nurturing, giving, even self-sacrificing.

Yasemin Demirtas is a life coach with Effect Coaching, based in Dubai. She regularly sees women who express unhappiness regardless of their material circumstances because they have set their ambitions, dreams and desires aside out of a misplaced sense of obligation.

"In most cases the choice happens unconsciously, unfortunately, so she doesn't know she took one choice over another," Demirtas says. "And in most cases the choice actually happens out of fear."

She gives as an example a woman who dreamt of being a pilot but ended up a personal assistant and married with three children. What Demirtas calls a "core value" - the thing that would make this woman happy - was the adventure wrapped up in her dream of being a pilot. But there is none of that adventure in the life she leads. And however she may feel, she should value family above all else. If that isn't the truth, then her life, in all its certainty and all its apparent ease, will not bring her happiness.

"Let's say the family value is not really a core value for her, so when she took that choice it was out of fear - meaning she was afraid of not having a family at all, not fitting into society's standards, being alone, etc," says Demirtas. "So she took a trade at some point in her life, unconsciously choosing something over her dream, and as a result she is unhappy though she doesn'tknow why."

Yet working out why is crucial. Because however complicated life may be, according to Rowe, "so many people don't realise how simple it is to live happily. It is an activity, not necessarily physical, and often it can be something very small. The art of being happy starts with being aware of what brings you happiness."

Rowe points out that you can be happy only in the present. You can't defer it and you can't sustain yourself on the memory of previous happiness. You can't expect it to come to you because you deserve it - life doesn't work that way. Perhaps the very expectation that objective improvements in one's life should automatically correlate with an increased sense of well-being is flawed.

After all, while we can appreciate opportunities in work, education and health, and while it would be wrong to dismiss them as of no worth, there is no reason why they in themselves should make us happy. That is something far more personal and far more particular. That is about working out what you actually want in life and learning how to ask for it. And perhaps if you find that, and perhaps if you get that, those three little words can be rearranged into the realisation that "This is it".