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.

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Guest's picture

If you are unhappy, it is the fault of society, who wants you to be happy only in the Great American dream. But happiness is such a personal thing, it has nothing to do with others.

I have dealt with bipolar disorder and it had nothing to do with society. It had nothing to do with my mind frame, it was a physical problem.

Guest's picture

Wasn't there a women's liberation revolution decades ago in America? What happened between then and now? Why is it that women still insist on playing victims when they cannot "find happiness"?

Oh wait, it must me "American psychology" that keeps you from "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". Yeah. That's it.

"Are single mothers, feminist scholars, childfree women all destined to be unhappy? American psychology says yes...". Really? Could you provide a single shred of evidence about this "American psychology"? Because it seems to me that this country has taken a more empowering attitude toward women in the past 50 years than ever before. Women have broken through glass ceilings and, in fact, are now typically the bread-winners of their families.

Stop blaming some mythical "oppressive society" for your problems!

Guest's picture

There is a lot I don't like about your review, but I want to focus on one thing - your apparent views about medication.

Now, I have no doubt that there are people who are being unnecessarily medicated. And I am also sure that many women have lived in circumstances (social and personal) that negatively affected their mental health. And while there are doubtless a self-help industry that capitalizes on people's unhealthiness, there is also a serious shortage of mental health services - either they are simply not available or people cannot afford services.

Now here is my point: Speaking as a woman with a long history of bipolar depression, I am here to tell you that there are a lot of people who take anti-depressants for excellent reasons that have nothing to do with achieving happiness. Sounds like you have been fortunate to have lived thus far without a major psychiatric illness, but a lot of us take meds because otherwise we would be unable to get up in the morning, look after our families, hang on to a job, stay solvent, and not piss off everyone who cares about us. Oh, and not kill ourselves. Meds can be a bit of a blunt instrument, and side-effects can be pretty bad, but they are often, quite literally, lifesavers.

I get really tired of people who trivialize serious psychiatric illness.

Maggie Wells's picture

That one cannot discuss the history of women in 19th and early 20th century America without being attacked for doing so. It doesn't sound like you are attacking my review of the book or Ariel's research but the subject itself is what some are taking issue with. Interesting, to say the least.


Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

there are some helpful aspects to this book (providing role models for happiness), but I too question the premise that there is an 'American psychology' today forcing women into life choices they are not happy with, though unquestionably there was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I certainly never felt any such constraints. Granted for some individuals there can be familial pressure, but that is not the same as societal pressure. And as another commenter pointed out, there is a physical component to depression that has nothing to do with outside forces.

Guest's picture

I see first-hand many other women like me dealing with a lot of social pressure and issues of self-fulfillment as mommies, wives. Many of these women (nearly -all- I know) are currently taking anti-depressives and battling depression symptoms.

****There has to be more to this than simply a demographic deciding not to take responsibility for their own happiness. I don't think it's a matter of placing blame as much as uncovering a possible source and changing this dynamic.

I understand feeling deeply passionate about this subject. I find myself compelled to talk about it, too. But I don't think that the author of this article or book deserves such venomous comments.

Guest's picture

Society doesn't dictate what makes me happy. I do. Know yourself and seize the day, carpe diem! Yes that's right. Only you know what makes you happy. Laugh n the world laughs with u, cry n u cry alone. Life is what we decide it is. I hold a BA in Finance, am part of a military unit n most important I'm a woman, a mother, daughter a friend etc because I choose to make those things important. I'm a single mother, sperm donor left when pregnant n I couldve cried about it. But I'm a woman, we're built to outlast men, we are superior in so many ways. Yet most depend on a man to tell them what to do. Mothers out there, empower your children, especially your daughters. My daughter is my pride n source of happiness. One smile takes away all my troubles.

Guest's picture

I agree that societies idea of what ought to make us happy is unrealistic. I felt pressure to be married and have kids, while having a career and a rockin' body and climbing mountains and keeping up with the Jones. Women have been in a role transition, but we are still trying to please everyone around us and have no relationship to our own needs. I am changing this for myself now, but I wish I understood it 20 years ago. Sigh...

Guest's picture

I do not think that the author of the review wants to talk you into not taking your medicine when you have bi-polar disorder. I assumed she's making the the obvious point that anti-depressants are used in many situations in which psychotherapy (i.e. seeking the underlying psychological reason for low mood) would do much better job.

What can plausibly disturb a reader though is an easy generalization of how women feel oppressed because American psychology says this and that. The existence or strength of social pressure (you feel) depends on many factors: where you live, your family history and expectations, your biography. But it's not the same thing as feeling the pressure coming from psychology teachings. Shows and talkers and books are quoted (so called popular psychology or psychology for the masses I guess) but the question is to what extent they represent "American psychology" and in particular how close it is to what you would learn from a certified psychotherapist.

To make things clear, I don't know how it really is in America, I only wanted to highlight disagreement about the factual situation between the author and readers. In my country social pressure is extremely strong and most often manages to efficiently hush more reasonable voices. But when it comes to what I read from psychologists, I it is very rare that I get the impression they want to put me into happily married with children box.

Guest's picture

The word is "whets" not "wets" -- whets hones one's interest, sharpens it and might lead to further reading/discovery. Wets just damps your interest down and washes it away.

Guest's picture

I was an outwardly-successful looking woman in her early 30s - attractive, healthy, excellent career. And I felt like a miserable failure. My doctor diagnosed me with mild depression after a 10 minute conversation, put me on anti-depressants and referred me to a therapist who tried to help me get to a place where I could realize my "real goals" of marriage and family.

It's taken 4 years to get off those drugs and get their after-effects out of my system. Drugs I never needed. Drugs I was prescribed so that I could numbly carry out a "normal life," when the real problem was that I didn't want that life.

For those who bristled at this review's suggestion that medication is unnecessary, I am certain that was not the intent. These drugs are overprescribed at a terrifying rate, which marginalizes those who truly need them.

To those railing about women blaming things on an oppressive society, I can tell you that from my personal experience, YES, "American psychology" really did attempt to push me right back into a traditional woman role.