Tag Archive for 'Ariel Gore'

Can women be smart, empowered, AND happy? Ariel Gore tries to find out

review by Jessica Powers

Editor note: Though Ariel Gore’s new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, only briefly deals with fertility, I decided to write this review anyway because I think the choices women make around our fertility or infertility have a lot to do with the pursuit of happiness. Though I don’t analyze it in particular for this review, one of her chapters, “Extreme Motherhood,” especially explores the paradox of women and happiness as it relates to giving birth and assuming the identity of “mother.”

Gore, Ariel. Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2010. $24.00.

The final scene of the 2008 indie flick Happy-Go-Lucky encapsulates one of the core problems presented in Ariel Gore’s new book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness.

Poppy and her roommate Zoe are rowing a boat in the middle of a pond. Poppy has just spent a harrowing afternoon with her psycho driving instructor, who blames Poppy for the complete and utter ruination of his potential love life, quite possibly his career.

“I think I should give up smoking,” Zoe says.

“That’s a good idea,” Poppy says, with her trademark giggle. “What can I give up?”

“You can give up being too nice,” Zoe says, slightly exasperated.

Poppy laughs.

“Seriously!” Zoe insists. “You can’t make everyone happy!”

“There’s no harm in trying, though, is there?” Poppy asks.

Poppy clearly hasn’t learned her lesson. Throughout the course of the movie, this happy-go-lucky woman meets miserable person after miserable person, who try to convince her that there’s something wrong with her life because she’s, well, happy. And her best efforts to cheer them up, to help them see that life ain’t all that bad, are wasted. But thankfully, though she’s brought low for a few hours each time, she’s always able to bounce back up.

Poppy is one of the truly fortunate: she’s happy with the life she’s got. As she explains to her sister, “I love my life. Yeah, it can be tough at times, but that’s part of it, isn’t it? I’ve got a great job, brilliant kids [referring to the children she teaches], lovely flat, I’ve got her to look at [pointing at her pretty roommate], I’ve got amazing friends. I love my freedom. I’m a very lucky lady, I know that.”

There are two themes presented in this scene. One theme is Poppy’s eternal good-will, her own happiness, undeterred by the suffering around her. Though she is touched by it, and even experiences sorrow at times, she is able to move through the moments of misery and back into her status quo of blessed satisfaction with life. Most of us only wish we could achieve Poppy’s sense of equilibrium. The second theme is Poppy’s profound need to help others achieve happiness, and her utter inability to help. It is this latter problem that

Both themes have a great deal to say about this idea of “happiness” in western culture, particularly as experienced by women, according to Ariel Gore, whose new book, Bluebird: women and the psychology of happiness, explores the question, “Can women be smart, empowered, and happy?” In the U.S., the pursuit of happiness has become enshrined as a political right. And in the 20th century, happiness has become big business-a business, as Gore discovered, dominated by men and symbolized by the father of happiness, Martin Seligman himself. Women writers and psychologists, by contrast, have responded negatively to the new happiness movement. Why? Gore wanted to know. Don’t women want to be happy?

As Gore set out on her search to explore the source of happiness for women, she discovered, to her chagrin, that the things she thought would make her happy were not, in fact, her happiest moments. What’s going on? she wondered. Shouldn’t her many accomplishments-editor, writer, mother-make her happier? When the research Gore did suggested that the “happiest women” were wives and homemakers, she wondered if that truly equated happiness and, more importantly, whether it was possible to make other choices, to go against the social grain, and still be happy?

“We are told what will make us happy as if we were all the same woman, as if we all share a single heart, as if we can’t all be right when we realize our disparate desires: another child, an intellectual life, more than contentment, a giant squid” (23).

Part of the problem, she noted, is that “women’s notions about personal happiness are all tangled up with our ideas about privilege, selfishness, and social responsibility” (27).

Why do so many women believe that they are responsible for helping others to find happiness, even if it means neglecting or erasing their own happiness?

Although Americans have enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a right that should be protected by the constitution, they’ve done so for men only, suggests Gore. Society still emphasizes the feminine role as one of helping others pursue happiness.  “There’s a hierarchy of happiness,” one woman told Gore. “First comes the kids, then my husband, and then me. I’m stronger than they are. I don’t need to be happy” (33.) Gore argues that women have historically become the cheerleaders because we’ve been dependent on men economically and one way of justifying that dependence was to do “extra emotional work” (41).

Gore suggests that many women are stuck at one level of emotional wholeness. If the first level is letting go of selfishness, of putting me first, the second level is acting only out of a sense of responsibility towards others. This is where most women get stuck, forgetting that they, too, have needs. There’s a third level of morality, one where we don’t slight others but we also take care of ourselves. “Connection and relationship involve more than one of us, after all,” Gore writes, “and if anyone is slighted-ourselves included-the relationship is harmed and something immoral has taken place” (29).

So the first step is recognizing that we can seek our own personal welfare without being selfish. If that’s the case, what does it mean to be happy? The key to happiness, Gore suggests, is the freedom to recognize what we want in life and to move towards those goals.

But what do we do when our desires can’t mesh with reality? For example, if our desire is to have a child, and we struggle with infertility? Or if we’ve invested our identities in a job or a marriage, and we experience unemployment or divorce? Is happiness incompatible with heartbreak, with sadness?

The answer, according to Gore, is “no.” Happiness is also the choice to respond productively and proactively to the negative stimuli in our lives, to “rejoice in the midst of suffering” (p. 14). Psychologists who study happiness have noted that only about 60% of our happiness is attributable to life circumstances and/or our basic personalities. Another 40% is “under our control and depends on ‘intentional activities'” (80). In other words, despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can practice happiness. This doesn’t mean faking it or putting on a cheerful face despite sadness. Rather, it means doing certain things that can move us away from discontent and heartbreak and towards happiness.

Gore researched the various suggestions for achieving happiness and put some of them to the test. Among the activities she tried, and which worked, were practicing gratitude; allowing herself to be get absorbed in the tasks at hand, that is, experiencing flow in her work; recognizing that the challenge of juggling her work and her relationships (with her children, her partner, and others) was part of the joy in her life-that work didn’t have to get in the way of relationships and vice versa, but that they worked together in tandem; working with a life coach to better define her wants and desires in life, and then setting goals to help achieve them; and, finally, recognizing that she can find happiness in even the most menial of tasks when she doesn’t feel trapped by them, that is, doesn’t feel obligated or controlled by them.

In nature, with our friends or children, working or reading, we are happy when we are dynamically engaged with our lives. We are happy when we’re following threads of thought and activity we’re curious about-unconcerned where those threads will lead….I am consistently happy when I experience a particular synthesis of the intellectual and the domestic. I like geeky academic texts and I like berry pie (171-172).

Women find happiness, Gore says, when they reject the prescriptions for happiness that have been written for them-by church, society, spouses and partners-and have the courage to find their own path (173-174). In short, she’s arguing that women feel happiest when they have choices.

But making some choices limits other choices. And what do we do if we lack choices-if our choices are limited by circumstances we can’t change? There’s no easy answer to that one.

As I read Bluebird, I thought about my mother and the career sacrifices she made to put her family first-sacrifices she’s still making today, by taking care of her 100-year-old mother-in-law. Growing up, despite the sure knowledge that my mother loved me unconditionally and would always do what was in my best interests, I sensed that she yearned for some imagined future that she’d given up in order to put her husband and children first. It wasn’t that I believed my mother to be unhappy. It’s just that she didn’t seem exactly happy, either. 

If I were to press Mom on whether she wished she had “achieved” more, I suspect she would say she’s achieved the most important thing-raising children who are functioning members of society. I once told her that the book she’s been writing for the past 25 years is her “grand opus.” She hesitated, then said, “Actually, I consider you and your brothers my ‘grand opus.'”

But even though my mother is pleased with her grown-up children, is glad she’s married to my dad, and loves her grandchildren, is she happy? Did she sacrifice joy in order to do what she was “supposed” to do? Even if she doesn’t regret the decisions she made, does she still secretly long for that other Future That Might Have Been?

I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. But what about me? Am I happy?

Although the American pursuit of happiness is legendary, my religious family didn’t consider personal happiness to be the main goal in life-or even a goal at all. It may be closer to the truth to say that personal happiness, or the pursuit of it, was rendered completely irrelevant to the grand pursuit of the truths of God and discovering his will for our lives.

My parents never stated it directly, but I picked up on and adopted the underlying belief that happiness was all well and good, but it was also a little selfish. The point of life wasn’t happiness. The point of life was salvation-finding God and then helping others find God. The point of life was doing what God called you to do. That was where true joy resided. If you resisted his calling, you’d be miserable. Presumably, if God had called me to do something, it would also be my heart’s desire. But if my heart’s desire was not what God intended for me, there would always be a tension between what I wanted to do and what God wanted me to do-and I’d never be happy until I gave in and was obedient. Happiness was obedience to God’s will, in other words.

I left religion behind when I left home, but I realized when I read this book that I haven’t left most of those ideas behind. There’s a secular version of this same belief. Happiness is a luxury, goes this version. Rather than pursuing personal happiness, we should be pursuing social justice, the elimination of hunger and poverty, the eradication of racism, sexism, homophobia, and all those other bad “isms.” Happiness has no place in this vision of the world. That’s not to say happiness is wrong-only that it has no purpose. Happiness, according to this view, doesn’t help you change the injustice in the world. Instead, passion and righteous anger are the tools you need.

Is it possible to pursue peace and justice-and be happy? It certainly should be! Part of the problem, I realize, is that there is something wrong with my definition of happiness.

I’ve fallen into the American trap of believing that the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of material and financial success. But I know myself well enough that I wouldn’t be happy if I was constantly in pursuit of the purse. Worse than being pointless, the pursuit of “wealth as happiness” contributes to the economic injustices in the world.

To be honest, the inner me still feels guilty at the thought of pursuing happiness at all. I still sort of believe that personal happiness is a lucky byproduct of these other things-pursuing your calling, helping others, making the world a more just and humane place. If you only pursue happiness, this inner me says, you risk never achieving it. Instead, pursue your calling, peace and justice, and loving relationships-then you’ll find your happiness. And if you don’t, this inner me insists, maybe it’s not your fault. And maybe it’s okay.

Perhaps Gore would agree with me. Happiness, she argues, isn’t a static condition. It isn’t a state we find ourselves in-it’s something we experience as we reach towards those things we really want in life (172-174). It’s almost like we experience it without knowing it. We only notice unhappiness.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be questioning whether my mother was or is happy-or whether I should or should not pursue happiness. That there are circumstances we can’t control-it isn’t easy for my mother to take care of my grandmother, for example, and I sure as hell would like to be a more famous and better paid writer-doesn’t change the basic fact that we are both living lives of our own choosing, reaching towards our highest values and our largest dreams.   

In the end, we can’t ask much else of ourselves.   

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

-Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

qtd. in Gore, p. 181

 Jessica Powers is the author of The Confessional (Knopf, 2007) and editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent (Catalyst Book Press, 2009). She is the founder and editor of The Fertile Source.

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