Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guilt, Choice, and Happiness--More Complicated Than it Appears?

Having choices is a great thing, and if people were given the opportunity to make more lifestyle choices from a larger selection, they'd have a great chance at attaining happiness by finding what works for them and their families. Right? Doesn't that sound reasonable?

Well, it--like everything--is a little more complicated.

Working Mother surveyed over 3700 women about their motherhood choices. The results are in an article titled "What Moms Choose: The Working Mother Report." The verdict? Many mothers report dissatisfaction with their choices.

  • 55% of at-home mothers want to be working.
  • 51% of working mothers feel guilty over not spending enough time with their kids. 
  • 55% of at-home moms worry they aren't making enough of a contribution to family income. 
  • 48% of working mothers and 42% percent of at-home mothers say they don't spend enough time taking care of themselves. 
  • 55% of working mothers and 44% of at-home mothers feel guilty that the house isn't clean enough. 
What does all of this guilt and grass-is-greener perspective mean?

It made me think about this 2007 Newsweek article "Why Money Doesn't Buy Happiness." The article reports studies showing that more money doesn't necessarily mean more happiness:
That's partly because in an expanding economy, in which former luxuries such as washing machines become necessities, the newly affluent don't feel the same joy in having a machine do the laundry that their grandparents, suddenly freed from washboards, did. They just take the Maytag for granted. "Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year," writes Gilbert, "but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year." Another reason is that an expanding paycheck, especially in an expanding economy, produces expanding aspirations and a sense that there is always one more cool thing out there that you absolutely have to have.
They equate some of this with choice:
The trouble is, choice is not all it's cracked up to be. Studies show that people like selecting from among maybe half a dozen kinds of pasta at the grocery store but find 27 choices overwhelming, leaving them chronically on edge that they could have chosen a better one than they did. And wants, which are nice to be able to afford, have a bad habit of becoming needs (iPod, anyone?), of which an advertising- and media-saturated culture create endless numbers. Satisfying needs brings less emotional well-being than satisfying wants. 
So, when there are too many choices, we have to constantly question whether we made the right one. Not to mention--if we are critical thinkers--we have to weigh all of those options, a mentally taxing job in and of itself. Then we have to look at the way people around us are making those choices and, depending on the trends, that can make things that used to seem optional look increasingly necessary. Doing what is necessary doesn't feel like an accomplishment because it has to happen. Doing what is optional can feel like an accomplishment--and thus make us happier--as long as we aren't thrown back into the loop of doubting our choice and wondering what might have been.

What does this have to do with motherhood choices? The Working Mothers study also shows that 49% of working mothers and 47% of at-home mothers consider themselves their own worst critics. We're being awfully hard on ourselves about the choices that we make. Also, many of the choices can seem like conflicting necessities. Notice that working mothers felt guilt about not spending time with their children (and spending time with your children is a necessity for parenting) but at-home moms felt guilt about not contributing to the family finances (which could also easily be viewed as necessity).

And if too many pastas overwhelms us and leaves us wondering if we made the right decision, what does that mean for the possible combinations of career, job, home, parenting style, relationship, etc. choices that we have to make. No matter how carefully discussed and research, there will always be options we didn't take and there will always be times we'll have to wonder how those other choices would have fit.

I'm not advocating against choices. In fact, I think that choices are progress, and I'd still rather that there be 27 pastas out there because you just never know when the perfect pasta might come along--because sometimes only gemelli will do.

So, if happiness depends on viewing our choices in a different light, we're going to have to stop thinking about all of the things we didn't pick while still keeping our options open enough to have a flexible life. Maybe the answer is to think of our choices as the selection of a group, and each choice is just one in a series of choices. I can't, for instance, drive myself crazy wondering what would have happened if I had stuck with biology (my original college major) and studied infectious diseases (one of my original career plans). I have made too many choices that have taken me too far away from that set of possibilities. At the same time, I can't become so fixated on a career path as an English professor at a four-year university (the typical path of someone getting the degree I'm getting) that I blind myself to other options that might fit my skills and interests in different ways. I still have opportunities within that series of choices to change and grow.

On a side note, I'm totally with all those women who feel guilty about housework--why is it that's one choice that's so hard to make and feel satisfied with it?

Photo: h-bomb

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