Review: Bluebird -- Women and the New Psychology of Happiness
Back when I was a Women’s Studies major, no story of the history of women in America so intrigued me as the stories of women in the asylums of the 19th and early 20th. Maybe it was that they all seemed to land there at the hands of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. All it seemed to take is one man in their families to notice them being restless, bored, or sighing too deeply and their whole existence could start to unravel. A perfect life for a woman was a marriage to a man of property, having a couple of kids, and building a home. Any deviation from the pattern was deviant. But women forced into the pattern often were unhappy (who wouldn’t be without any control over her own destiny?). And so thousands of women were institutionalized for their despondent sadness. Women of course have also been trained to be the one that doesn't fulfill her goals (goals? what goals?). As mothers and grandmothers we are happy for our children, happy for our husbands, happy for those around us but not, it seems, happy for ourselves. That, was too selfish of us.
Today you’d think we’d moved away from these ideas but Ariel Gore shows us that today’s psychology hasn’t really landed us that far from the beginning. There is a whole industry of talk show experts, a thriving how to be happy book industry attempting to solve your problems, and of course the pharmaceutical industry to make you expensively dependent on their products all for the sake and the quest of that elusive thing called happiness. It’s all a racket of a business and we all seem to have fallen into the unwise trap of it.
What’s fascinating about Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness is how true it rings to a woman who has been told she’s depressed, or "sees the negative." As Gore chronicles the rise of the happiness industry, there’s no way to read this book without nodding your head in agreement of all the money and time and energy we’ve collectively spent trying to be happy the way society deems we should be. Whom among us hasn’t done that workshop or that seminar or bought that shelf of books that you haven’t finished reading? Who hasn’t taken the advice to take the anti-depressants? Turns out not many of us. Women are overwhelmingly diagnosed with depression much more so than men and she explores the reasons behind it all. The contemporary world is telling its women they need to find happiness in a man, some kids, and a home of their own — has anything changed since the 19th century? What about all of us women who don’t fit in that category anymore if we ever did? Are single mothers, feminist scholars, childfree women all destined to be unhappy? American psychology says yes, but Ariel tells us to think again.
Ariel’s way of writing is always a joy to read. Brutally honest, she is and willing to let you see everything that she is and isn’t. You feel instantly like you are talking with a friend. Make that a smart friend who reads lots of psychology articles so you don’t have to. Though sometimes I wished some of the areas touched on would have been expanded further and in more detail, she whets the appetite for you to go and research the history yourself.
What actually makes this book sing though is Ariel charming and witty writing style. She tells stories of her family and stories of her friends. Women she knows well and barely knows at all, come forward to say what works for them, what makes them happy. No two stories are alike but all have a familiar ring. Happiness is found in kissing the head of a baby and smelling in his scent, a hike in a favorite place, or an evening spent alone in a bath. Guess what happiness industry? Surprise, surprise, happiness actually doesn’t cost you anything — perhaps though, it might be worth the cost of this book.