Elevate Difference

Ariel Gore on Women, Happiness, and Self-Determination

Interview with Ariel Gore

Ariel Gore’s new book Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness asks the question, “Can women be smart, empowered, and happy?” Here, Ariel Gore offers her ideas on happiness and advice for women seeking change in their lives.

In order to write this book, you kept a journal where you tracked the things in your life that made you happy, and you asked a lot of other women to do the same. How did these women respond to the request?

At first people were excited about it. Then a lot of them found some resistance to it. Women have a lot of resistance to focusing on their own happiness. We’ve been taught to make other people happy, after all. Most of the women started dealing with feelings of happiness being selfish, and wondering if the journal was hokey. But they had made a commitment to the project and soldiered on. Without fail, they broke through some of those resistances and found that the simple act of meditating on their own happiness allowed it to bloom a little bit. Allowing ourselves to say, “Hey, am I happy?” is powerful and emancipating, even if the process is a bit hokey.

What changes came from keeping the journal?

Some of the women who took part in the original project changed careers. Some increased the amount of time they were spending on whatever activities made them lose track of time: developing pictures in the dark room or surfing or having more sex. One woman made a huge change in her family structure. Other women didn’t make any outward life-changes, but those thirty days exploring happiness and seeing whether we can trace patterns from the scraps of our moods is a practice that’s designed to change us, even if those changes are subtle.

The pursuit of happiness is put forth as the ultimate purpose in life; however, there is also a belief that happy people are, well, sort of dumb. Why does this contradiction exists?

In American culture there has been a massive campaign to sell us all on cheerfulness. It has been an important part of capitalism and has been part of the oppression of women. Women have been endlessly told by others what we need in order to be happy. Maybe they say we need a husband or children or a fantastic career or a spotless kitchen or multiple orgasms. In any case, we are being told what is good for us. Of course we rebel against false cheerfulness and being told what to do when it's wrapped in the nonsense of it being “for our own good.” False happiness and denial-based cheeriness does feel dumb. We have the right to be grumpy! But that’s only fun for a while.

You mention some problems with the concept “you create your own reality,” but ultimately, suggest that is exactly what women must do to achieve happiness. How do you reconcile the contradiction?

Well, we don’t create reality. Women and poor people don’t create reality right now, but we have the freedom in every circumstance to decide how we’re going to react to our reality. As our personal power grows, we learn to influence reality so that we—and everyone—can be free, and happy.

Psychologist Martin Seligman is considered the father of contemporary positive psychology. He made a name for himself back in the late 1960s with a series of experiments on dogs that resulted in the theory of learned helplessness. These dogs were stuck in “shock boxes” and Seligman and his colleagues figured out that if the dogs were shocked at random, and given no control over their torture, they usually didn’t make a run for freedom when given the opportunity. Later, Seligman got to thinking about those rare dogs who, despite abuse and lack of control, kept resisting. There was a rare dog who was so resilient, so totally determined, that she couldn’t be broken. Positive psychology set out to find out, essentially, what that dog had.

If happiness is, in part, a choice based on freedom, what would you tell women who are enmeshed in situations they are powerless to change that cause them great unhappiness?

I think our choices are always limited to some extent. Canadian positive psychologist Dr. Paul T.P. Wong defines happiness as the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering. Alice Walker has pointed out that resistance is the secret of joy. We make choices first to survive, to protect children and elders, and then to resist false power gained from fear and obedience. No matter what or how long it takes, we get them to open the shock box—or we get it open ourselves—and then we jump.

It is widely**** believed that something that makes you happy or fulfilled will make others happy as well. Why do we fall into this trap?

Because it has been relentlessly marketed to us! If you look at the history of advertising, you find this shift in the early part of the twentieth century—from warning ads that say you will have bad breath if you don’t use this mouthwash to the “product satisfaction ad” where advertisers try to convince us that their product will make us happy by making us more beautiful, more relaxed, richer, or whatever. Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But when I looked at women and happiness, I found the opposite to be true. While depression was fairly standardized, the things that made women happy in their lives were actually quite varied and unique.

As you studied happiness, you realized you wanted another baby and you wanted to make more money, so you made it happen. Did it make you happier?

Stepping out of the role of the martyr-mom by saying, "I want to do all of this, but I need reasonable funding," and then upping my rates for much of the work I do made me happy. Money by itself doesn’t affect my mood one way or the other, but the constant anxiety of not being able to pay the rent was really doing a number on me. I was raised by a Catholic priest who had taken a vow of poverty and in a counterculture community that taught me money was somehow bad, so it took a lot for me to be able to say, "All right, maybe this is the next level of empowerment. Maybe I need to be able to keep a roof over my head and have health insurance for my kids, and the thing is, I can do that without hurting my community."

What one thing do you suggest women do in order to find contentment?

Recording moments of happiness every day can be really powerful, even if—maybe especially if—really hard things are happening in your life. Keeping a happiness journal is about moving through the resistances, savoring moments of happiness even in the most difficult times, and prioritizing your own happiness. It’s not like our refusal to be happy makes us more loving and compassionate; it just makes us mean. Existential depression might seem cool and smart—like we’ve figured out what’s really going on—but in the long term, I don’t think it serves us.

Now that you aren’t experimenting with ways to bring yourself happiness, has your life returned to the status quo?

I have learned how to recognize when something is causing me anxiety, and I can switch gears pretty fast. I recently lost my maternal grandmother and my mother was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. In the span of one season, I went from feeling secure as a granddaughter and a daughter to facing the possibility of being the eldest generation in my family. I’ve had to take a deep breath and come to terms with not being a kid anymore. I cannot afford to waste the finite amount of time I have on this earth listening to anybody’s bullshit, and I can't afford to lock myself in the basement in existential depression.

Written by: Jessica Powers, January 19th 2010