Does having too many choices, and too much freedom, contribute to intense dissatisfaction? Are modern people, particularly women, angry because our culture of self-affirmation and abundance has left them feeling unsatisfied?
That women are less happy today is not just anecdotal. In 2009 the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that since World War II, when women reported greater happiness than men, the difference in the twenty-first century had dropped to zero. The study’s authors, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania, found that in the U.S., women’s happiness had fallen “both absolutely and relatively to that of men.”
There’s also overwhelming anecdotal evidence for anyone who bothers to make basic observations. Talk to women from the Greatest Generation, or from the 1950s and early 1960s, and they generally seem rosier than their young feminist counterparts. My mother, eighty-five, is a sunny and sanguine person, despite living through the Great Depression and losing her mother when she was only fifteen. Barbara Bush, Betty White, ninety-something swing dancing wonder Jean Veloz—these women all had and have the qualities of serenity and contentment. They’re secure in themselves and happy about who they are.
By contrast, many modern women seem quick to express anger about their lives. Living in a world of unlimited choices and constant affirmation, they nonetheless seem resentful. Even celebrities aren’t immune: Pop star Madonna is richer than many small countries and is absolutely free to do, say, and wear (or not wear) anything she wants to. Yet when fans have the audacity to be upset that she’s an hour late for a show, as she was recently, she launches into a tirade. American women live in the freest, most open-minded country on earth, yet seem bitter and disappointed.
Consider the disposition of Casey Wilson, who has just written about her anger issues for Lenny, Lena Dunham’s online magazine. Wilson, an actress, writes about her many years of rage. She’s “thrown a Mountain Dew pager out the window of my boyfriend’s car on the highway en route to Rehoboth Beach”; she’s “smashed my beloved bedazzled Sidekick into my dressing-room mirror at SNL and left a trail of crushed BlackBerrys in every shitty apartment complex in LA”; she’s “thrown my iPhone only once, in a tequila-fueled moment (but between us, I knew I had an upgrade coming).”
In the midst of these meltdowns Wilson had what junkies (and anger addicts) call “a moment of clarity”:
My mom was the president of the National Women’s Political Caucus (an organization devoted to getting women elected) for the first several years of my life. I wonder if growing up with a mother who was so angry at the state of things she wore a pro-choice sticker while eight months pregnant with me played a role. She raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Which was liberating and wonderful. But perhaps this combination had me feeling a little too free to be me. I had become a subway ad: if I saw something, I said something. It wasn’t a good look, but no amount of therapy or meditation (my mantra made me EVEN. ANGRIER.) or astrology retreats (I’m a Scorpio) seemed to help with this particular issue. I couldn’t get a handle on it.
Wilson has put her finger on what is called “the paradox of progress.” The more we make giant advances in science, communications, medicine and technology, the more people complain. Free from starvation, we gripe about the quality of the organic food at our local restaurant. A hundred years ago polio was wiping out thousands of children in the United States; now teens become apoplectic if they have their iPhones taken away. My mother had a very rough childhood that included having to support her family while still a teenager. Now women who could be her granddaughters are demanding tax breaks for makeup.
The great social historian Christopher Lasch once wrote eloquently about the concept of “the ethic of limits,” which he described as follows: “For vast numbers of Americans, limits are a necessary and even desirable face of life—limits on human freedom, on human capacities, on the power of reason to eradicate everything that is mysterious in the universe.” Lasch contrasted the people who live with limits—those who spend their lives working, raising kids, and living their lives “a long way from the center of metropolitan culture”—with a “New Class” of elites that pursues a “heady vision of unlimited possibilities” and “views life as an experiment.” Lasch believed that the people who accepted the reality of limits ended up living more hopeful lives. As today’s generation of self-styled feminist women suggests, limitless freedom has not brought the happiness they assumed it would, and as they confront life’s realities, anger is replacing hope.
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