When the founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that Americans were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they left out a lot of people – everyone who wasn’t a land-owning white man.
From that foundational promise, the U.S. was built around making that same group of men happy. Laws, policies and institutions were built around their ideals, their identities, and the rhythms of their lives — usually with women and people of color doing invisible and un- or under-paid work in the background to hold the whole system up. That ideal of pursuing happiness didn’t mean that men felt good every day. It was instead an Aristotelian vision of a good life; one that involved the pursuit of knowledge, personal growth, and the formation of identity through perseverance, overcoming challenges, and learning from robust life experience. It’s this idea of a good life to which women have long been denied access.
In my book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness,” I explore how our country might change if women’s happiness was front and center instead. If our laws, policies, and institutions were rebuilt from the ground up, with our experiences and interests as the foundation and our wellbeing as the ultimate goal — what would that look like? In interviewing women across the U.S. and diving into reams of social science on what makes us happy and what makes for a meaningful life, I came across a lot that was obvious, but much that was surprising, too.
If the U.S. government wanted to prioritize women’s happiness, there are a few unorthodox things they could do:
1. Mandate paid vacation, and pay people enough to use it.
Part of the Aristotelian vision of happiness is a life lived in pursuit of knowledge and personal betterment. For many of us that comes from our jobs, but our lives outside of our workplaces matter, too. One of the ways we grow is through the challenge of engaging with an unfamiliar culture or by traversing unfamiliar terrain.
For too many Americans, though, travel is an unaffordable dream. Low-wage hourly workers may not even get unpaid vacation days, and even if they did, they probably can’t afford to use many of them. Even well-compensated workers may not find the time to take off: Americans get an average of just 15 days off a year, compared to 28 for Europeans. Vacation also helps to foster better and more stable relationships, making time for the intimacy with a partner often necessary for a lasting marriage, the bonding with a dear friend that researchers say may make women physically healthier, and the ability to spend the kind of quality time with children that social scientists relate both to personal happiness and better outcomes for kids.
2. Figure out what the heck is going on with the Trump administration and Russia.
What does a trustworthy and transparent government have to do with happiness? Quite a lot, actually. Around the world, people are happiest in countries with low levels of corruption and high levels of public trust. Development and political stability impact happiness, too – and looming constitutional crises, or the suspicion that a leader is engaged in self-dealing and nepotism, undermines our happiness. Reporting public trust in the government, and making clear that our leaders are honest, accountable, and transparent, will make for a happier populace.
3. Research sexual pleasure.
The federal government invests in scientific research, and sex should be on that agenda. First on the list: fully funding research on male birth control. The advent of the birth control pill brought with it a sexual revolution in the U.S., but decades later, the obligation to prevent pregnancy remains entirely on women — many of whom don’t love some of the side effects from hormones in the pill, the patch, the shot, or the IUD. It’s great that women have so many options, but men should have more choices than using a condom or pulling out — and they should be equal partners in preventing unintended pregnancies.
Research should also focus on alleviating or eliminating sexual dysfunction and negative sexual side effects from common medications or illnesses. As it stands, many health care professionals and scientists accept a depleted sex drive as an acceptable and normal secondary impact of a drug, or, at least for women, something we should accept if other aspects of our health are being treated.
And finally, we need better research on what human beings find sexually pleasurable, and how to maximize pleasure in our lives. Recreational sex is something most adults do, and yet we still have a deep discomfort at the idea that it’s good for women to have sex for fun. Why? It is good! And we should take the time to figure out how to make it even better.
4. Let each of us designate our “person.”
As it stands, our legal system relies primarily on family ties to determine who gets to make medical and legal decisions on another person’s behalf if that person is incapacitated. Ann Friedman, a journalist and the host of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” told me she “would love a federal system in which every adult gets to name ‘their person’” — that is, to designate the individual charged with making decisions for them if they can’t. People could still default to the traditional system where a spouse, parent, or other next of kin is the decision-maker, but they could also designate their friend or a different trusted relative.
Women today marry later than ever and live independent lives before marrying (if they marry at all). More of us are single mothers than ever before, and many of us set up our own non-traditional arrangements, sharing homes with other women or men and creating makeshift families. And women who have deep and varied social connections tend to be happier than women who are more cloistered and dependent primarily on a single person as their social outlet. But this new reality isn’t reflected in our laws. There are a lot of areas in need of change — the tax code, housing laws that restrict the number of people who can share a space — but a simple system to designate one’s person would be a good first step.
5. Regulate diet products — including “wellness” products.
Huge numbers of American women say they’re dissatisfied with their bodies, and most of them want to lose weight. Many — albeit fewer than a decade ago — turn to diet products, including supplements and dieting programs. But dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, and programs that promise weight-loss success don’t actually have to demonstrate that they do what they say — or fully disclose potential side effects.
Now that dieting is less popular, “wellness” has taken its place. That’s marginally more positive, but still, some “wellness” experts hawk untested supplements and weight-loss solutions, and many women implicitly trust them because they’re billed as healthy and all-natural. Most Americans who lose significant amounts of weight end up gaining it back, often after shelling out considerable amounts of money. This dieting seesaw is bad for us physically and mentally — women and girls with poor body image are less likely to assert themselves in their romantic and sexual relationships, and disordered eating goes hand-in-hand with higher rates of depression. Solving American women’s body image problems is admittedly a complex proposition; it’s much less difficult to make sure that dietary supplements and products that promise get-skinny results aren’t doing us harm.
6. Mandate consistent hours and a living wage.
Money, the cliché goes, can’t buy you happiness — but that’s only true above a certain baseline. People living in poverty, or on the edge of it, are less happy than people who are financially stable (duh). In the United States, a disproportionate share of the poor are women, and single mothers in particular. Many of these women work, but for minimum wage or close to it — which is simply not enough to support a family. And many work at companies that offer inconsistent less-than-full-time hourly employment so that they keep their bottom line low and don’t have to offer their employees benefits.
But the employees who need basics like health care and food for their kids don’t disappear just because they’re erased from the corporate calculus — they turn to the government. Wal-Mart’s subpar wages, for example, cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in 2013 alone. And the tattered American social safety net means women who rely on it live much worse off than women in similar life circumstances in our economic peer nations. The social safety net needs to be strengthened, but so do corporate regulations. Companies, after all, employ human beings, and they should act like it. New laws, and robust enforcement mechanisms, would ensure that companies can’t shortchange workers by keeping their hours just under full time and their schedules unpredictable. This, in turn, would stabilize many women’s finances and their time — better enabling them to raise their kids, cultivate their relationships, and plan their lives. And all of that makes for a happier society.
7. Consider mothers as much as babies
Having a baby is life changing — but it can also be life ending. American mothers are expected to sacrifice everything for their children, and when they’re pregnant, that includes their health and sometimes even their lives. A quarter of American women have pelvic floor disorders, many of them from childbirth, that can lead to incontinence. Many find sex is still painful more than a year after birth, and when they mention it to their doctors, they’re told this is “normal.” In the delivery room, doctors routinely attend to the baby more than the mother, and sometimes mothers die as a result.
Instead, doctors should treat women’s full medical needs, like the physical and emotional rollercoaster — and sometimes trauma — of childbirth and the utterly normal desire for a healthy, non-painful sex life after having a baby. And federal and state governments should invest in the basics that keep women healthy, supporting better nutrition through more generous food stamp programs and providing more robust health care — including, but not limited to, prenatal care — for women in need.
8. Make healthy food more accessible, affordable, and meaningful.
Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures — the taste builds and evokes memories, the sensation of a delicious bite can be sublime, and the experience of eating at a table with family or friends helps to build the lasting connections that are associated with a happy life. Eating a diet rich in nutrients has the added benefit of contributing to lifelong good health, which in turn improves wellbeing. But Americans have a disordered relationship with food. Many of us don’t eat particularly healthfully because of a combination of stressors: not enough time to prepare and sit down to a meal; not enough money to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins; no grocery stores that carry affordable healthy items nearby.
These constraints are magnified for poor women and working single moms, especially. There’s much we could do to ease the time crunch women face, but it would be even easier to take some simple steps to make eating better. First, expand the food stamp program and up the amount we give to families; healthy food often costs more than heavily processed food, and families deserve to be able to buy what nourishes them, even if they are poor. Second, make school lunch periods longer; by training our kids to wolf down their meals, we set lifelong bad habits and undercut the valuable social aspect of eating. And third, states and municipalities should do more to try and draw grocery stores to food deserts, which tend to sit disproportionately in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, even when you control for income. Eating isn’t just how we survive; it’s important for connection, pleasure, and happiness. And we can make it better.
Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.