Is The “Narcissism Epidemic” Making Women Unhappy?

A recent study shows that women are more unhappy than ever before. Over the past 50 years, mental disorders have risen significantly in women, while reported rates of “subjective well-being” have dropped dramatically. This would suggest that our mothers or grandmothers – those “oppressed housewives” that hadn’t yet reaped the benefits of the feminist movement — were, um, happier than we are? But how?!In the past 40 years, women have made gains on all fronts: we’ve gained sexual freedom with the increased availability of birth control, our educational opportunities have been widely expanded, we’ve been rapidly making our way into traditionally male-dominated fields, and we’re even living longer. So why, then, are we more depressed than ever?

Two researchers, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, are speculating that the increase in despair is due to a phenomenon they call the “narcissism epidemic.” In today’s society, they argue, narcissism is rewarded by both our parents (who remind us daily of how special we are) and the media (which insists it’s best to love, but also improve ourselves), leading us to think we’re far more fabulous than we actually are, or that we’re capable of becoming far more fabulous than we actually can become. The result? When life turns out to be a bit more of a bitch than we were told it would be, we become unhappy. In other words, because women have been taught to expect and achieve more in life (and to look flawless while doing so) we’re unsatisfied when our expectations aren’t met.

The results of this study may be accurate – we’ve noticed an increasingly popular trend of self-hate that seems specific to women, and we’ve also noticed a rise in narcissistic tendencies (some have even speculated that it’s keeping ladies who are searching for love, single). As psychologist Oliver James points out, the pressures of “consumerised, commercially driven version of femininity” have put a huge amount of pressure on females’ appearance. It’s inevitable that after being told we need bigger breasts, fewer wrinkles, and thinner thighs, we feel like failures when we don’t fit the mold. Maybe it’s also the fact that we’ve been taught we can have everything (fulfilling career, flawless husband, happy family, etc.) when maybe we can’t.

But I have other, less depressing ideas on why these discouraging results came to be. First of all, I don’t know what the studies that were conducted 50 years ago entailed, but I’m not sure the women back then were as happy as they might have reported. Maybe we’re just being more open about our feelings these days and admitting we’re not living amidst rainbows and smiles 24/7. Also, reported “happiness” figures during the ’70s may have been inflated due to the feminist movement; women were excited about the changes and were therefore “happier.” But now that we’ve realized things still aren’t quite as wonderful for women as we’d hoped, we’re not fully satisfied.

I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been a happier woman 50 years ago. I probably would be a little happier today, however, if pop culture wasn’t shoving plastic surgery, anti-wrinkle creams, and skinny-Minnie models in my face, but I’ll take that over oppression, thank you very much.