In my and Gwen Sharp’s advice for new college grads, we advise against trying to find a job that you love. ”This sets young people up to fail,” we wrote. Instead:
…it’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy. Just find a job that you like. Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff. A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.
This has gotten us quite a bit of feedback, both positive and negative, and helped spark a Huffington Post Live segment exploring the topic, featuring two young entrepreneurs, a career development counselor, and “the requisite” economist (his words!).
I try (largely unsuccessfully) to keep the conversation grounded in a class analysis, reminding the group that using ourselves as examples was sampling on the dependent variable. And I suggest that, instead of telling young college graduates to “find the thing they were meant to do,” we should help them see that they are likely looking at 100 different satisfying futures. All they need to do is find one of them.
The full segment is longish, but the best part is the first minute, a compilation of wildly successful people giving commencement speeches about how everyone should just find their passion and follow their dreams.
In a wonderfully provocative article titled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text), writer and poet Adrienne Rich argues, among other things, that the assumption of heterosexuality in the context of patriarchy alternatively erases and stigmatizes woman-to-woman bonds.
Though the title specifies lesbianism, she means intense and meaningful relationships between women more generally. In other words, an overbearing heterosexuality orients women towards men not just as sexual and romantic partners, but as the arbiters of all that is good and right. Accordingly, women don’t turn to other women to validate their ideas, their value, their beauty, or anything else about them. This post, analyzing the reality show Battle of the Bods, is a stark example.
If only men can validate women’s worth, then other women exist only as competition for their approval. This is good for patriarchy; it divides and conquers women, keeping them constantly looking to please the men around them and making them feel invisible and worthless if they can’t get attention from or endorsement from men.
There are various strategies for getting men’s stamp of approval: being the busy and useful mother of a man’s children is one way, while being a childless so-called “trophy wife” is another. You can imagine, right away, that these two kinds of women might see themselves as in competition. One may be more harried, with less time to tend to her physical fitness and keep her hair shiny and her make-up and clothes just right. The other may have plenty of time to keep herself fit and beautiful, but knows that her connection to her husband may feel less permanent without children to tie her to him. Moreover, the childless wife is often a second wife. So all sexy, single, childless women are, theoretically, a threat to the wife and mother. And all husband/dads are, theoretically, a target for wanna-be second wives.
Pop culture constantly re-affirms these narratives. It frequently naturalizes the idea that women should turn to men, and not women, to reinforce their value. Portraying women as in competition is part of that. The “trophy wife” vs. the “busy mom” is one of those match-ups. Enter this Volvo ad, sent in by Dolores R.:
The ad encourages us to think mean-spirited thoughts about the married but (presumably) childless woman with the puckered lips. She clearly sees herself as in competition with the redhead, looking over to check that she is, in fact, more beautiful, and looking satisfied that she is. The redhead, though, has (supposedly) more important things to do than check herself out in the mirror. She’s got kids. How shallow the blond, we’re told to think, how fake. ”Designed for real people,” the narrator explains, “designed around you.”
As my good friend Caroline Heldman says, when we see women that excel in some way — whether they be accomplished in their career, impressive fashionistas, incredible parents, truly loved partners, inspired artists, or what-have-you — we are taught to find something about them to dismiss because they make us feel insecure. Instead, we should think “How fabulous is she! I want to tell her how great she is and be her friend!”
Forty years ago Richard Easterlin proposed the paradox that people in wealthier countries were no happier than those in less wealthy countries. Subsequent research on money and happiness brought modifications and variations, notably that within a single country, while for the poor, more money meant fewer problems, for the wealthier people — those with enough or a bit more — enough is enough. Increasing your income from $100,000 to $200,000 isn’t going to make you happier.
It was nice to hear researchers singing the same lyrics we’ll soon be hearing in commencement speeches and that you hear in Sunday sermons and pop songs (“the best things in life are free”; “mo’ money mo’ problems”). But this moral has a sour-grapes taste; it’s a comforting fable we non-wealthy tell ourselves all the while suspecting that it probably isn’t true.
A recent Brookings paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers adds to that suspicion. Looking at comparisons among countries and within countries, they find that when it comes to happiness, you can never be too rich.
Stevenson and Wolfers also find no “satiation point,” some amount where happiness levels off despite increases in income. They provide US data from a 2007 Gallup survey:
The data are pretty convincing. Even as you go from rich to very rich, the proportion of “very satisfied” keeps increasing. (Sample size in the stratosphere might be a problem: only 8 individuals reported annual incomes over $500,000;100% of them, though, were “very happy.”)
Did Biggie and Alexis get it wrong?
Around the time that the Stevenson-Wolfers study was getting attention in the world beyond Brookings, I was having lunch with a friend who sometimes chats with higher ups at places like hedge funds and Goldman Sachs. He hears wheeler dealers complaining about their bonuses. “I only got ten bucks.” Stevenson and Wolfers would predict that this guy’s happiness would be off the charts given the extra $10 million. But he does not sound like a happy master of the universe.
I think that the difference is more than just the clash of anecdotal and systematic evidence. It’s about defining and measuring happiness. The Stevenson-Wolfers paper uses measures of “life satisfaction.” Some surveys ask people to place themselves on a ladder according to “how you feel about your life.” Others ask
All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?
The GSS uses happy instead of satisfied, but the effect is the same:
Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
When people hear these questions, they may think about their lives in a broader context and compare themselves to a wider segment of humanity. I imagine that Goldman trader griping about his “ten bucks” was probably thinking of the guy down the hall who got twelve. But when the survey researcher asks him where he is on that ladder, he may take a more global view and recognize that he has little cause for complaint. Yet moment to moment during the day, he may look anything but happy. There’s a difference between “affect” (the preponderance of momentary emotions) and overall life satisfaction.
Measuring affect is much more difficult — one method requires that people log in several times a day to report how they’re feeling at that moment — but the correlation with income is weaker.
In any case, it’s nice to know that the rich are benefitting from getting richer. We can stop worrying about their being sad even in their wealthy pleasure and turn our attention elsewhere. We got 99 problems, but the rich ain’t one.
This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable. Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease. But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea! Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.
To the girl who was raped: You are so strong. I cannot fathom the pain you must have gone through. The fact that you have the bravery to write it (even on a bathroom wall) gives me hope.
To the girl with eating disorders: I promise you, although I don’t know you, you are beautiful, you deserve your health. You deserve freedom from that hell.
To the girl with the alcoholic father: I am so sorry for the agony it must cause. Again, such courage is remarkable you must be such a strong person to see such pain.
To the girl whose father died: Missing them never goes away. The ache of their absence never goes away. But the love they had, the memories you share surely must last. I am sure, out of the bottom of my heart, the people who have left you in this world are exceptionally proud of the person you are.
Everytime(sic) I see these walls, these confessions, I feel so blessed to know I have the priviledge(sic) of seeing them. Your moments, these secrets, are all precious even though they are sad. To all of you (including those I did not mention, and those who have not yet written)
-You are worthy.
-You are strong.
-You are brave.
-You are loved.
It went viral. Reddit picked it up, and the story has been in Canadian newspapers. But this example is not so unusual. A study of bathroom graffiti at a New Zealand university (unfortunately behind a paywall) found similar themes:
…inscriptions in the women’s toilets were talking about love and romance, soliciting personal advice on health issues and relationships, and discussing what exact act constitutes rape. Women also tried to placate more heated discussions (e.g., “Stop this. There is no reason to say these things. Why so much in-fighting?”).
The men wrote about politics and money (especially taxes and tuition). Men also posted insults that were far more numerous and aggressive than those in the women’s room. Only the men wrote racist graffiti.
Drier’s note, then, is a nice example of a documented trend: anonymous women being nice to each other in their bathrooms.
The punchline? Women use uptalk more frequently, but men use it as well. For men, however, uptalk signals something completely different.
What is uptalk?
“Uptalk is the use of a rising, questioning intonation when making a statement, which has become quite prevalent in contemporary American speech,” explains Linneman. Uptalk in the U.S. is reported to have emerged in the 1980s among adolescent women in California, aka “Valley Girls,” and it has become more widely used by men and women since then. Uptalk has been associated with a way of talking that makes women sound less confident Or is it makes people sound more like a girl?
Jeopardy! was Linneman’s clever setting for observing how women and men use the speech pattern. The associate professor of sociology analyzed the use of uptalk by carefully coding 5,500 responses from 300 contestants in 100 episodes of the popular game show. He looked at what happened to speech patterns when contestants — from a variety of backgrounds — gave their answers to host Alex Trebek. Although the contestants were asked to phrase their response in the form of a question, they used uptalk just over a third of the time.
How do men use uptalk?
Linneman found that men use uptalk as a way to signal uncertainty. Linneman explained, “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: Their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.” On average, men who answered correctly used uptalk only 27% of the time. Among incorrect responses, men used uptalk 57% of the time. In contrast, a woman who answered correctly used uptalk 48% of the time, nearly as often as an incorrect man.
Men’s uptalk increased when they were less confident, and also when they were correcting women — but not men. When a man corrected another man — that is, following a man’s incorrect answer with a correct one — he used uptalk 22% of the time. When a man corrected another woman, though, he used uptalk 53% of the time. Linneman speculates that men are engaging in a kind of chivalry: men can be blunt with another man in public, but feel obliged to use a softer edge with a woman.
How do women use uptalk?
As Linneman explains, “One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show.” Linneman measured success in two ways: He compared challengers to returning champions, and he tracked how far ahead or behind contestants were when they responded. Linneman found that, “The more successful a man is on the show, the less he uses uptalk. The opposite is true for women… the more successful a woman is on the show, the more she uses uptalk.” Linneman suspects that this is “because women continue to feel they must apologize for their success.”
Probabilities of Uptalk by Certainty, Age, Race, and Gender
CollegeHumor posted a set of fake Puritan-themed Valentine’s Day cards. They’re a humorous way of reminding us that our intensive focus on romantic love as a driving force for sex and marriage is, in fact, quite new.
When the Puritans landed on the rocky east coast of America in the 1600s, they brought with them the belief that sex should be restricted to intercourse in marriage, hence the sentiment on the left. All non-marital and non-reproductive sexual activities were forbidden, including pre- and extra-marital sex, homosexual sex, masturbation, and oral or anal sex (even if married). Violations of the rules were punished by fines, whipping, public shaming (yes, with “scarlet letters”), ostracism, or even death.
Alongside religion, there were practical reasons why the Puritans were so darn puritanical. Colonizing the U.S. was a dangerous job; lots of people were dying from exposure, starvation, illness, and war. Babies replenished the labor supply, motivating the Puritans to channel the sex drive towards the one sexual activity that made babies: intercourse. Accordingly, having intercourse with your spouse wasn’t only allowed, it was essential; women could divorce men who had proven impotent.
The Puritans also married primarily to form practical partnerships for bearing children and mutual survival, hence the sentiment in the card on the right.
The idea that love should be the basis for marriage didn’t take hold until the Victorian era, when industrialization was changing the value of children. Useful on the farm, children were suddenly became a burden in expensive and overcrowded lodgings. This gave couples a new reason to limit the number of children they had and, because industrial production had made condoms increasingly cheap and effective, they could. Marital fertility rates dropped precipitously between 1800 and 1900: from 6+ children/woman to 3 1/2 in the U.S., England, and Wales.
In this context, a Puritan sexual ethic that restricted sex to efforts to make babies just didn’t make sense. People needed a new logic to guide sexual activity: the answer was love. Over the course of the 1800s, Victorians slowly abandoned the Puritan idea that sex was only for reproduction, embracing instead the now familiar idea that sex could be an expression of love and a source of pleasure, an idea that still resonates strongly today.
That’s at least part of the story anyway.
Bremer, Francis J., and Tom Webster. 2006. Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia. SantaBarbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
D’Emilio, John & Estelle Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freedman, Estelle. 1982. Sexuality in Nineteenth Century America: Behavior, Ideology, and Politics. Reviews in American History 10, 4: 196-215.
For 100 years Valentine’s Day was not only associated with sweet sentiments, but was an occasion to send a cruel and biting message to someone you didn’t like. These cards — called “vinegar valentines” — were popular from 1840 to 1940 in both America and the U.K.
Annebella Pollen, an art and design historian who talks about the valentine’s at Collector’s Weekly, explains that there was a valentine for many types of people and occasions:
You could send them to your neighbors, friends, or enemies. You could send them to your schoolteacher, your boss, or people whose advances you wanted to dismiss. You could send them to people you thought were too ugly or fat, who drank too much, or people acting above their station. There was a card for pretty much every social ailment.
Pollen insists that people did send them to one another, albeit anonymously, and they were not meant to be jokes. Instead, they were meant to say: “Your behavior is unacceptable.” For much of the 1800s there was no such thing as a pre-paid stamp, so the person who got the mail paid for it, so often they were forced to buy their own insults, a twist of the knife from the sender.