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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happiness: Comparing Women and Men

There has been a lot of talk and speculation in the media lately about the outcome of two longitudinal studies that reveal, in general, over time, women are less happy than men.

According to Marcus Buckingham in the Huffington Post, these studies show, generally speaking, that women become increasingly unhappy with their lives as they age while men become happier and more satisfied with their lives (http://www.huffingtonpost.com). This may be an oversimplification of the issues involved, but that seems to be the issue in a nutshell. Marcus Buckingham also indicated that these studies show young girls today, as compared to young girls 30 years ago, are starting out in life less happy than young boys. New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, also responded to these studies and the Huffington Post article (http://www.nytimes.com).

Obviously, this is a complex issue with many variables, and I haven't read the original studies yet. And there are certainly many women who would say that they're happier now in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond than they ever were when they were younger, for a variety of reasons. Also, there are many men who would say that they're less happy now as compared to when they were younger.

But if there is some kernel of truth to the outcome of these studies, it raises many crucial issues: If women, who represent more than 50% of the population, are less happy as they age, what does this say about how we define happiness, our expectations for women as compared to men, how we raise girls and boys, how we live our lives, our values as a society, the biological differences between women and men, whether women tend to be harder on themselves than men by focusing on their "weaknesses" rather than their strengths (as Buckingham seems to indicate), and the messages that we give girls and women about youth and beauty in the media? And what does it mean, if it's true, that young girls today are starting out less happy than boys?

I'm not a researcher and I haven't conducted any studies. Hopefully, the recent research findings will be only the beginning of much-needed research on these issues and we'll derive answers to these crucial questions. I can only say what I've observed in my psychotherapy private practice in NYC, which I know is not representative of the entire population. For one thing, it seems to me that even though men are more likely today to participate in psychotherapy than they were even 10 or 15 years ago, and I've seen many men in my practice (at the moment, they represent about half of my practice), over time I've observed that women are more likely to come to therapy than men.

I don't know if this means that women are more unhappy than men or if it means that, in general, they're more open to exploring and talking about their feelings and their problems, both or neither. It's hard to say--I focus on individual women and men in my psychotherapy practice with their own distinct backgrounds, personalities, and circumstances as opposed to looking at the broader sociological issues--soI can't generalize based on my experience. And, perhaps, it's different in other parts of the country outside of NYC (although this is not the sense I get from colleagues in other cities). But I think this is another issue worth exploring.

In general, both men and women tend to benefit from psychotherapy, if there is a good "fit" between them and their psychotherapists (i.e., if they can establish a good rapport together and develop a therapeutic alliance in treatment). And, yet, most people who are depressed or anxious never begin psychotherapy to try to resolve these issues. They're more likely to see their medical doctors to deal with the symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g., insomnia, sadness, jitteriness, and so on). And while it's important to deal with the symptoms, usually medication alone doesn't resolve the underlying issues.

Part of the problem might be that most people don't understand what psychotherapy is all about. Even though we have more exposure on TV, in movies, in live theatre, and in books to characters who participate in psychotherapy, some of these fictional accounts show a skewed view of what psychotherapy and psychotherapists are about. So, if you watched "The Sopranos" or "In Treatment" and thought this is what therapy would be like and this is what your therapist would be like, you might not want to start therapy. In general, therapists are rarely portrayed well in fictional accounts. Another part of the problem is that, for many years, most psychotherapists spent a good deal of their time talking to each other about therapy rather than spending more time trying to educate the general public about the benefits of psychotherapy. Fortunately, this is changing, and more therapists are making a concerted effort to provide psychoeducational material to the public in a jargon-free, user friendly sort of way. Last, but not least, affordability is still an issue for many people who are considering psychotherapy. Even if they have health benefits that include psychotherapy, finding therapists on managed care panels who have evening openings can be a dauntng process (possibly, a topic for another post in the future).

My hope is that, whatever the data might show about women, men and happiness, as more men and women learn about the benefits of psychotherapy, which I attempt to address in my posts, they will feel more comfortable coming to therapy to work through their problems rather than assuming that this is the way it has to be and suffering in silence.

I'm a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist in NYC. I have helped many clients to lead more fulfilling lives. 

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

If you live in the NY Tri-state area and you've been thinking about starting therapy in NYC, you can call me at (212) 726-1006 for a free telephone consultation.







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