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Does gender affect how we experience happiness?

While men and women are the same species, we are very much not the same. Over time, the roles of men and women have been defined and redefined by culture, religion, fashion, politics, geography and technology. Yet there is also a personal element to the way you understand yourself as male or female.

Your gender role, ie what you have learned about what is and isn’t appropriate for your sex, comes from the way you were influenced by your family — their social, religious and cultural attitudes — as well as by your community. This influence dictates the way you are supposed to interact with the opposite sex, how you interact on superficial and intimate levels and your general attitude toward the other sex and the way in which they should play their role.

When it comes to men, women and happiness, then, it is not enough to discuss what makes each gender happy as separate entities; we also need to consider what makes us happy as partners. Men and women operate as individuals, of course, but they also operate as a partnership when in an intimate relationship. While personality type and attitude influence happiness and the things that make you happy, it’s impossible to ignore the cultural norms that differentiate what men and women should or could aspire to.

It is also important to distinguish between the two kinds of happiness that psychology defines: hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. Researchers define the pleasure that comes with something like a good meal or movie as hedonic wellbeing; it is the short-term and fleeting kind of happiness that is most often associated with having a good time. Activities such as raising children, volunteering or pursuing career goals, on the other hand, may offer less pleasure on a day-to-day level but they provide a sense of fulfillment in the long run. It is this kind of happiness that researchers refer to as eudaimonic wellbeing and it is the kind of happiness that offers the most protection from illness, disease and emotional and psychological distress.

Both men and women experience these two types of happiness, though it has been argued that women are better at differentiating between the two. It is through the hedonic experience of happiness that the fundamental and superficial differences between male and female happiness exist, but it has been suggested that there are core and controversial issues that affect the happiness of each gender on a more eudaimonic level as well.

Men

So what are the basic differences between what makes a man happy and what makes a woman happy? Excluding the influence of culture or religion, many evolutionary researchers suggest that a man’s happiness stems from the evolutionary role they have been expected to play. This argument suggests that men and women are very different because they have been designed over millions of years of evolution to be so. Yet the lives of modern men and women are not that simple.

Many commentators have spoken on the subject of the impact modernity has on men’s ability to be happy and the confusion many feel about how they should be men. There is an argument that men have been somehow demasculanised by modernity and even feminism, that there is no clear way of acting like a man. Indeed, a 2008 British study found that 61 per cent of young British men did not “feel masculine” compared with only 35 per cent of the men born from the 1920s to the 1940s. But it is not just men who worry about their “manhood”; studies have shown that women in many developed nations have reportedly complained that finding a “real man” is becoming harder.

To try to identify the traits that represent masculinity and encourage an innate sense of happiness in men, researchers have looked at concepts such as strength, honour and action. Along with the idea that men need to feel in control and as if they are contributing to their families and communities in meaningful and active ways is the incorporation of men’s “softer” side. The side that wants to feel needed by loved ones and appreciated for the efforts they make to ensure a good life. This is what may arguably go toward simplifying the idea of “man”, of giving men a clearer idea of the foundation of who they are.

This link between masculinity and happiness seems to be clear and, certainly, research from cultures that still practise the rituals that take boys to manhood reports their men being happier. These men seem to have a clear sense of who they are, what is expected of them and the behaviours that are appropriate for their sex. Gender and identity, then, it may be argued, are important aspects of happiness, laying the groundwork for day-to-day life.

And it is this day-to-day experience of life that also throws up gender differences. Research has also shown differences in the way men and women experience hedonic happiness. A British study found that, while women valued time with family, enjoyed feeling good about the way they looked and loved sunny days, men’s happiness was most influenced by their hobbies, sex and the victories of their favorite sports teams.

Yet it isn’t just what makes you happy that highlights gender difference. According to some commentators, men’s and women’s feelings are expressed in entirely different ways and even from different parts of the body. It is suggested, for example, that women feel happiness right in the middle of their chests, like a vibration of joy, while men feel their happiness as a growing energy in the upper chest, shoulders and neck, making them “puff up”.

Women

While men’s happiness has been linked to their evolutionary gender roles, women are perceived to have a similar foundation to their happiness, too. Experts such as author John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) suggest that a woman’s happiness and energy levels come from the “oxytocin-producing acts of nurturing and being nurtured”. Research from around the world would seem to bear this out, with many female participants reporting that family and friends, spending time with them and caring for them, provide them with a strong sense of wellbeing.

While some would argue that this kind of suggestion limits women to being mothers and wives, the nurturing aspect of femininity has much broader applications and thus a larger impact on happiness. Research consistently shows that nurturing your relationships and being nurtured in return offer exceptional physical, emotional and psychological protection. Humans are, after all, essentially social creatures; our relationships are the very foundation of our sense of self and joy.

Yet, as with men, there is a body of evidence that suggests that women, too, struggle with identity, with who or what they should be: stay-at-home mum? Working mother? Not a mother at all? Many women around the industrialised world seem to struggle with how to reconcile their independent, achieving selves with a desire to give their time and energy to others; not only as a mother, of course, but as a lover, friend, colleague, daughter, sibling and community member.

It is a dichotomy that impacts heavily on happiness, for, while the vast majority of women seem to value their softer side, they are also quick to distance themselves from the soppy, doting stereotype that still exists in our collective conscious. The impression society has given women is that to be a nurturer is to be passive, to be unimportant in the greater world. The very word “nurture” seems to have a negative connotation attached to it, yet nurturing is part of being human, male or female. And it is difficult to argue that, biologically, women don’t have an innate capacity to nurture or that women most often define themselves in terms of their relationships.

Again, it would appear that, while there are gender differences in what makes you happy, the very concept of gender can keep happiness from becoming complete. This is true, too, in relationships. It would seem that men and women don’t understand each other terribly well when it comes to love and this is most obvious in intimate relationships between the two. Making each other happy is what we dearly want from relationships but achieving this seems to be troublesome.

From the literature, it would seem that understanding how men think is nearly impossible for women, and vice versa. While there is a great deal of advice out there to help you understand the differences, it is very easy to fall back on what you understand about happiness and forget that gender differences exist. This is especially true when frustration rises and communication is lacking. Inevitably, love requires work and the same kind of stepping back from emotion that you would use in other situations to achieve happiness.

Gender and identity

It would seem that while gender difference in happiness is clear, the modern identity confusion over what it is to be a man or a woman impacts on happiness. So what is gender identity and how can you use it to boost your happiness? Your gender role is the set of social and behavioural norms that your society stipulates. Clearly, some cultures have more strictly defined gender roles than others, but in the Western world it could be argued these roles have been corrupted in such a way that wanting to fulfil traditional roles can generate criticism from others that somehow you need to be more than who you are or want to be.

Yet gender roles have less to do with work or having a high-flying career than they do with your sense of self. Psychologists suggest that in order to be happy you need to experience three things: connectedness, a sense of achievement and a sense of being able to freely act in harmony with your sense of self.

This lasting, or eudaimonic, happiness means pursuing your own interests, enjoying activities in which you demonstrate competence and feeling connected to others. When you have these things in your life you will experience greater self-esteem and a more meaningful life because relying on something external for happiness will always let you down. A sense of self that is grounded in reality, however, will always lay the foundation for contentment and an authentic, happy life.

But how do you achieve this when your identity is being pushed and pulled at by what you think you should be, what you think you are and what others want you to be? To find your sense of self, you first need to look inside yourself and identify the set of core values by which you most naturally want to live.

To help you do this you must practise being in the moment. When you are present in the moment, when you take a step back from the pressures of others and your insecurities to behave authentically in a situation, you will more clearly be able to recognise what is important to you, what is truth to you, where the line is that you won’t step over and where your true direction in life lies.

When you achieve this, not only will you more clearly understand who you are as a man or who you are as a woman, you will also experience greater happiness in your relationships. When you come to respect who you are, you can more readily respect others and happiness becomes effortless.

Both

It is in finding your sense of self that gender becomes less relevant and the truth of living a good life to experience wellbeing becomes more important. While we know there are differences in the ways men and women experience both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness, there are also many ways in which happiness has no gender boundaries. Having strong relationships and having a sense of purpose are two key ways in which both men and women report their happiness.

Countless studies have shown that being partnered — married or in a long-term committed relationship — is very good for your overall wellbeing but relationships in general are vitally important to experiencing happiness. According to researchers, it’s all about the number of people you associate with and how closely you associate with them.

All of us need other people in order to thrive. Being around other people makes you feel better and boosts happiness. In short, you need close relationships in order to be happy because relationships create psychological space and security so you can explore and learn, and so you can evolve intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Yet there is a caveat. The relationships you have must be good ones based on mutual understanding, caring, validation of your self-worth, security and fun.

Relationships that are primarily negative, that undermine your self-esteem and deplete your ability to rouse yourself into a happier state of mind, impact on your physical, emotional and mental health. Granted, you may have people in your life you cannot avoid but around whom you feel depleted; in those cases it’s important to build resilience or some kind of state that allows you to deflect their negativity. Ultimately, though, happiness comes from developing positive relationships that nurture you.

There is a variety of ways in which you can develop solid, nurturing relationships. One is to belong to a group or community, which inevitably helps to develop your sense of identity, understanding of who you are and the comfort and security that come from knowing you are a part of something larger than yourself.

When you have positive relationships and strong social connections, you will generally experience fewer stress-related health problems, have a lower risk of mental illness and enjoy a faster recovery from trauma or illness. And it’s a long-term effect. Scientists have observed what they call “hedonic adaption”, or the tendency to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. It’s why people who win the lottery, for example, usually find themselves at the same level of happiness they had before they won.

Research would suggest that close relationships, however, can be an exception. Unlike with material possessions, you are more likely to continue to want your close relationships, even after you attain them, and to continue to have positive emotions about them. This is the Beauty of strong relationships: they feed you and you feed them and the cycle of good energy and love builds happiness forever outward as the joy you feel in one relationship spreads out to other people you both know.

Along with the protection and joy relationships bring, another key way in which men and women both experience happiness is in having a sense of purpose and a feeling of achievement. While these concepts might seem fundamental, it is often difficult to define your “purpose” in life when asked. Yet its importance is being more and more recognised in the fields of psychology and workplace wellbeing.

Researchers in the field of positive psychology have discovered that individuals who feel a “meaningfulness” or purpose in life report less pain and reduced anxiety compared with those who don’t. There is also a reduction in episodes of depression and substance abuse. But the benefits aren’t just about your physical health; a sense of purpose gives energy and inspires creativity, intellectual engagement and curiosity. Having a purpose, then, can boost your happiness on many levels.

Finding a purpose in life is a big task when you take the word to mean doing something that is world-changing. Aspiring to this kind of grandeur can be stifling when a purpose can be as simple as being a wonderful parent, or a good teacher or nurse or wanting to help those with very little. It is simply about understanding what is important to you and then applying that in your daily life. When you know what it is you need to do with your life, your commitment gives you a recurring touchstone or goal that you can then use to get yourself back on track if things start to get out of control.

From a sense of purpose comes a sense of achievement and achievement has also been identified as a contributor to happiness. When you achieve a goal, large or small, the hum of pride that follows is a precursor to eudaimonic happiness. When you make progress on your goals you automatically feel happier and more satisfied with life, and the better you feel, the more inspired you become to achieve more, to work through your goals to accomplish your project or dream.

It is an upward spiral of both happiness and achievement that influences other parts of life, improving relationships, your inclination toward participating in healthful behaviour and your self-confidence. It’s a phenomenon that can also have you sharing your good ideas with others so that you might inspire someone else to move forward and embrace the momentum that achievement and joy bring.

That is what positive psychologists believe is vital for true happiness in life — ie, doing something for its value, not for reward. There is mounting evidence showing that people who give their time, money or support to others are more likely to be happy and satisfied with their lives. The research suggests there is a profound connection between altruism and happiness. According to positive psychologist and author Martin Seligman, this is because living an engaged and meaningful life comes about when you use your strengths and virtues to serve something bigger than yourself.

Researchers have found many elements to attaining happiness, some having a more significant impact than others on long-term joy and contentment. Happiness can be gender-specific and it can also cut across gender lines. There are general ways in which happiness can and does manifest itself just as it is also a personal and subjective experience. What seems clear, though, is that, whether male or female, a strong sense of self is important in experiencing any kind of happiness at all. When our self-concept is in conflict with or limited by gender expectations, low self-esteem or poor relationships, it’s not possible to achieve eudaimonic wellbeing.

 

Nikki Williamson is a freelance writer and teacher who is always looking for ways to inspire herself and others to live a happier life.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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