I think a lot about why people aren’t happy. I’m reading a book now by Bertrand Russell that offers a compelling theory: Modern people are unhappy because we have too many options and we don’t truly have to struggle for anything.
To summarize: In the past (when we didn’t live in massive cities and have everything provided to us via technology) it was difficult just to get by with food on the table and a warm bed. Our big threats of the time were things like, “dying from the winter”, and “kids getting eaten by bears”.
Life was simple. Struggle was simple. And surviving was the clearly-defined standard for happiness. Being happy meant having food to eat, wood for the winter, and a family that wasn’t dying of some horrific disease.
But now it’s different. We’ve been robbed of our natural struggles, and as a result we spin our engines at full speed while in neutral. Engines hate that.
So this is a narrative I’ve been applying to things lately, and I am wondering if it applies to the happiness of women as well. If you’re squeamish you should look away now.
There are limitless explanations of why modern women seem to be so unhappy. The explanation used to be that women wanted to be treated exactly the same as men in all situations, and thus to receive the same pay and the same respect. It seems, however, that this isn’t actually the case.
Increasingly, women are becoming vocal about the fact that they’d like to stay at home and perform a more traditional role. This is looked down upon by many career-oriented women, however–as if it’s signing up for a type of slavery that the western world worked so hard to defeat.
But I have another way of looking at it. Perhaps it’s just another instance of struggling for simplicity–for looking for a pure path. And I think biology is a part of that. Look at the 50’s. There you have the classic setup, with Mr. Cleaver coming home from the office with his briefcase to a dolled-up woman who’s just finished dinner.
Both the man and the woman feel like they’re1 on the right path in this scenario–even if those roles are far from ideal given a modern, progressive outlook on life. It’s the simplicity of knowing that the man does x and the woman does y that keeps things going. And the man knows that if he brings home money and is a decent husband and father, then he’s a “good” man. The woman knows that if she takes care of her man and her children, then she’s a “good” woman.
It’s the simplicity that makes this work. It’s the Amish approach. Focus on the basics and stay within conservative roles. They’re doing it because they think they know the mind of God, but others could conceivably do something similar because they know the innate desires of the genders (through science, not religion).
We’re learning more and more that, as children, boys and girls start immediately on activities that are gender-based. Boys flock to the guns and trucks, and girls can’t wait to get pretty and play with dolls. Perhaps this is telling us something about what we should be doing as enlightened adults building a society. Perhaps the simplicity found in childrens’ games should be harnessed as a model for happiness.
Of course, it’d be silly to think that setting women back 100 years and putting them in aprons and heels in the kitchen would fix things. Slavery is simple too, and that doesn’t make it a good idea. And men aren’t going to embrace the idea of working 10-hour days (manual labor, you understand) in order to have a decent chance to survive the winter.
We’re beyond those times, and I’m glad we are.
But there seems to be something to this. There’s something to simplicity. And there’s something to embracing the roles that are built within us. A common denominator in all of this is the concept of eliminating options. It’s the billions of choices available that produce the anxiety.
If we know the path we’re supposed to be on, and it’s a struggle to navigate that path successfully, then it’s automatically fulfilling when we do so. But if we have the option of being an interior designer or a mother or a CEO of a company or an architect–then we can’t ever know if we made the right choice.
Women sit at home as mothers and say, “Wow, I wish I wouldn’t have settled for this.” And they make it as great business leaders and say, “Wow, I can’t believe I don’t have a husband or children.” At that point the worst option is the one that was chosen.
So what’s the solution? Roll it all back to the 50’s? Spin up some “Get Amish” bootcamps and charge thousands to have modern families adopt traditional roles? I actually see that happening soon. I think there is going to be a backlash against modernity–where many decide to embrace what seemed to have worked in the past.
But that won’t work.
It worked because it was necessary, first of all. And even then it only partially worked. If a woman has a brilliant idea and speaks up in mixed company only to be laughed at because women aren’t supposed to be smart…that’s a problem. And if a man decides he doesn’t want to enter a high testosterone field and “kick ass” with the rest of the alphas, and he’s looked down upon by women because of it…that’s a problem.
And sure, that’s still the case today. But it doesn’t mean we want to reach backwards in time to embrace even more of that. Equality is good. Having options is good.
But we need a balance.
We need a way to acknowledge and embrace gender roles without limiting who men and woman can become, or can be respected as. And we need a way to build simplicity into our lives without limiting our options.
1 I am conscientiously objecting to breaking out his/her as is technically required. We need to start accepting “they’re” when we talk about two different subjects.