Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Happiness And Other Differences Between Men And Women

FLG has long maintained that basing your personal happiness on the approval, admiration, or acceptance of other people is a futile task. One needs to define their own standards and goals and try to achieve them. And this goes for society as well. FLG contends that the more concerned people are about what societal expectations are, the less likely that person is to be happy. It's a roughly indirectly proportional relationship.

Now, it is admittedly difficult to separate your own goals from those of society or to ignore its demands. FLG understands that. However, to the extent you can approach that ultimately unachievable goal of not caring what other people, or society, say the happier FLG thinks you'll be. Just to be clear, FLG isn't advocating being a self-involved jerk. Be nice. Be polite. Just don't define yourself by the standards of other people.

Great, FLG. What does that have to do with women and men?

Well, it all started when Mrs. FLG was watching Oprah. FLG doesn't even remember what the specific episode was, but you know the drill. Some female guest and Oprah commiserate about failing to live up to society's standards of some kind or another, beauty, career, love life, doesn't really matter. And then Oprah and the studio audience proceed to inflate the person's self-esteem balloon.

This is an idiotic strategy. If there's one thing FLG learned in D.A.R.E., it was that one criticism deflates the entire self-esteem balloon. Basically, if somebody worries about how they look, then while compliments are nice they still pale in comparison to the one snide comment. Therefore, it's stupid to try and build each other up while lamenting what society values. The more effective, though definitely harder path, would be for the person to stop caring what other people think.

Obviously, this is all easier said than done. And as FLG mentioned earlier completely disregarding what other people and society think is impossible, and probably not even desirable. However, FLG thinks a certain distance is healthy.

Okay, FLG. Again we ask, what does this have to do with women and men?

Well, obviously Oprah is watched primarily by women. But there have been a variety of posts by Phoebe that have brought this entire topic to the fore of FLG's mind. Specifically, today's post about the dearth of female libertarians, the too-brilliant-too-bathe series combined with the girls are organized post, and the answer isn't to remove pressure on women to look good but to put more pressure on guys to look good series of posts.

On the libertarian issue, down deep, libertarianism, in which FLG swims often, probably too often, is basically a big FU to society's rule. Well, that's not quite fair. Rightly understood, liberty is a marvelous thing. But it's really about not being told what to do. So, this made FLG wonder if guys, for whatever reason nature or nurture, maybe white male privilege, don't really care about what society says? That maybe they care less about what people think?

On the girls are organized issue, here's a passage from Phoebe:
The "commonality" we're looking at here is that girls are expected to be organized and tidy. (See also: the capacity of girls with Aspergers or just run-of-the-mill social awkwardness to compensate from a young age and appear friendly and social regardless of what's going on in their brains. See also: too-brilliant-to-bathe.) There's no 'she's a genius who can't manage to put worksheets into a folder' out for upper-middle-class girls, but there sure is for their male equivalents. It is not natural for girls to keep binders organized. Girls - even messy, scatterbrained ones - keep track of when assignments are due because there's no chance they will get labeled brilliant but constrained by middle-school expectations.

But boys! "The problem is not the homework helpers; the problem is the homework itself, and a system that requires young children to master complex, if banal and often pointlessly difficult, systems, at an age where they should be out in the yard playing with sticks or watching birds migrate." A commenter responds, "Why do so many in the less-homework movement perpetuate this outrageously naive notion of childhood activity? Try playing video games and trolling the internet." Yes, that.

Again, what if boys just care less about what is expected of them?

Ditto for appearance. What if men just care far less than women about societal expectations in general? Also, FLG will say, at least anecdotal, that at least insofar as relationships go, whether romantic or platonic, men and boys seem to have far less expectations than girls and women.

There was this article in the NYTimes a few years ago about how men are happier than women. In the 1970s, women were slightly happier than men, but over the last four decades men are now happier. The authors of the studies that produce this data argued that it was a result of the "second shift" that is to say balancing career and home work expectations:
What has changed - and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends - is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can't possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

A couple of paragraphs later:
Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother's goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. "I sort of want all those things, too," the student said, as Stevenson recalled, "but I also want to have a great career and have an impact on the broader world."


When Stevenson and I were talking last week about all the possible reasons, she mentioned her "hottie theory." It's based on an April article in this newspaper by Sara Rimer, about a group of incredibly impressive teenage girls in Newton, Mass. The girls were getting better grades than the boys, playing varsity sports, helping to run the student government and doing community service. Yet one girl who had gotten a perfect 2,400 on her S.A.T. noted that she and her friends still felt pressure to be "effortlessly hot."

As Stevenson, who's 36, said: "When I was in high school, it was clear being a hottie was the most important thing, and it's not that it's any less important today. It's that other things have become more important. And, frankly, people spent a lot of time trying to be a hottie when I was in high school. So I don't know where they find the time today."

Look, FLG isn't saying that there isn't unfairness at work here, but these girls and women are overwhelmed because they care deeply about society's expectations, or at least feel them deeply.

As a teenager, to be hot and get straight As and perfect S.A.T.s. As a woman, "to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school and a great career and have an impact on the broader world."

Many women realize that the many expectations of society are impossible. One cannot be the the perfect mother and the perfect career person, nor can one be the Madonna and the whore, nor the hottie and nerd. However, when women realize these messages are impossible, the most common response seems to be this Oprah-esque group therapy session that says it's okay to feel overwhelmed, that you are a strong, beautiful person, and we ought to change society's expectations.

FLG isn't against that, per se.; he just thinks it won't work for the self-esteem balloon reason outlined above. Likewise, trying to change society's expectations when so many women have accepted and are losing their minds trying to live up to them is also futile.

Wait a second, FLG? Are you saying that men aren't influenced by societal expectations?

No, FLG is sure men are influenced by societal pressures. He's simply saying they are less influenced. Now, he might, as a man, be blinded to the multitude of ways in which men are influenced by societal expectations, and there are certainly expectations surrounding making money to provide and to avoid being seen as weak, etc, but it seems to FLG that men are in general less influenced by these societal pressures. Sometimes, for example, when it comes to educational performance and a whole host of other activities, this is probably for the worse. Other times, such as being happier it seems to help a great deal.

What's the point here, FLG?

Two-fold. First, a great many women seem to have so deeply accepted the expectations of society that when they realize that they are unattainable they try to have society say it's okay not to attain them. That ain't gonna work, even if Oprah stayed on the air for another 25 years telling people it's okay. Instead, women need to try to not care about societal expectations. Well, in actuality, care less. If enough of them stopped caring, FLG thinks the expectations would die down as well because they wouldn't be so effective in driving behavior. Second, men need to care more. In fact, FLG thinks that there are relatively less societal pressures on men precisely because of the reason he just mentioned -- it hasn't been as effective. (Although, in the 1950s there were strong expectations, it's only been since about the 1970 when that started to back off. Incidentally, when men started to get happier.) But this insouciant, blasé relationship toward other people's and society's expectations, if true, is also why boys are doing so much more poorly in school than girls.

How do you make women care less and men care more? FLG has no fucking clue.


Andrew Stevens said...

I largely agree with this, but to immediately forestall the usual criticisms ("I'm a woman and I don't care what people think of me" or "I'm a man and I'm constantly trying to live up to social pressures"), you should make it clear that you're talking about overlapping bell curves. Of course there are some women who care less about society's expectations than some men, just as there are some women who are taller or faster or with more upper body strength than some men. But in general, I buy this. There is a greater percentage of men who care very little about expectations, men are on average likely to care less, and there is a greater percentage of women who care a very great deal about it.

By the way, I would also take no position on whether this is nature or nurture. It is quite possible that women care more about society's expectations because society expects them to care more about society's expectations. (How's that for a conundrum?)

Anecdotally, it's certainly the case that I stopped attending high school simply because I didn't give a damn what people thought. I'm not quite that bad now, but I am still largely indifferent to people's opinions and have to make a real effort to be sensitive to how I come across; it just doesn't come naturally to me. I have never met a woman who is as extreme in this regard as I am, but I have met a few men who were worse.

Flavia said...

I'm with you on the problems with Oprah-style self-esteemism (there was an NYTMag article on this several years ago that I think of often).

But I think that Andrew Stevens is right when he suggests that "women [may] care more about society's expectations because society expects them to care more about society's expectations."

Sure, there may be some biological component. But I think the larger problem is that the penalties for not conforming to social norms are greater for women than for men. This is, I believe, Phoebe's point as well.

FLG said...


Re: ""women [may] care more about society's expectations because society expects them to care more about society's expectations."

Agreed, that's very possible. Although, I'm half convinced it's the reverse. Womens' concern about expectations only creates more expectations. But whatever.

In either case, if they cared less I think they'd be happier.

Andrew Stevens said...

I actually think there almost has to be some sort of biological component. Otherwise, you're locked into a cause-and-effect paradox. But it could be a very small biological difference which then self-magnifies. (In the same way that a very small advantage in height can lead to a very large advantage in playing basketball, as the small genetic advantage creates its own nurturing environment. You're better at basketball than your peers, so you enjoy it more, so you play more.)

I actually believe the penalties for men are every bit as severe, but (surprise, surprise) men care less.

Freddie said...

This is my advantage on the Internet. Not giving a shit about what people think about you, on the Internet, is like having a superpower. And as much as most people claim to have that superpower, in my experience, very few do. It's why many vehicles on the Internet exist: they are a regard trading registry. Commenter one says to commenter two, you're valuable and worthwhile. Commenter two returns the favor. You can see this dynamic played out most explicitly in the rise of the "like" button outside of Facebook.

Corrigibility on the level of ideas, always. On the level of the self, never. Your value is not crowd source-able. I'm often tempted to tell people who get bent out of shape on the Internet, who gives a fuck what someone (usually meaning me) on the Internet thinks about your value? But in my experience, most people do care, far too much.

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