I call this happiness by proxy: the idea that our own happiness can be measured by the happiness of the people who surround us — after all, we work our asses off to create it. As women we are taught/expected to nurture and please everyone around us.
I was watching the pilot of the British sitcom Pulling the other day, which revolves around a woman who’s about to get married but is quickly realizing she doesn’t want to. Her doubts and hesitations come to a head during her bachelorette party (or “hen night,” if you prefer). The main character gets one of her married friends alone in the bathroom and asks, “Are you happy?” The friend immediately starts talking about how happy her husband and children are, how well they’re doing. “No,” the main character asks, kindly but firmly, “are YOU happy?” Her friend tries to avoid the question from a few more angles before finally breaking down in tears.
Even though this exchange took place in a sitcom — obviously it’s a bit dramatic — it struck me as incredibly poignant and undeniably real. The question "Are you happy?” can be a deceptively difficult one to answer honestly, especially for women. The reason for that was perfectly summed up in this scene: we focus so much on the happiness of those around us that we completely neglect our own.
I call this happiness by proxy: the idea that our own happiness can be measured by the happiness of the people who surround us — after all, we work our asses off to create it. As women we are taught/expected to nurture and please everyone around us. We pour our energy into other people, focusing on their needs and wants while ignoring our own. Sometimes this feels good and natural; sometimes it feels exhausting, but for many (or perhaps most) of us, it’s a way of life.
I’ve fallen into this trap frequently throughout my life, with my boyfriend, my friends, my coworkers, my siblings. Part of this comes from being a natural people-pleaser, part of it is family culture (the old-school Italian side of my family was always very clear — a woman’s most important job was to keep the men happy), but a lot of it comes from societal expectations about my role in the world, as a woman. In most situations and relationship dynamics, I fall into an accommodating role, making sure everyone else is happy, subverting my own needs and desires in the process. People expect me to play this role. I see my girlfriends and female colleagues doing this all the damn time. I don’t see it nearly as often in my male friends and colleagues. It’s not expected from them. If anything, they see to their own happiness first, and expect others to support them to that end.
For mothers, the pressure to keep everyone else happy is exponentially intense. Part of this makes sense — you’re responsible for tiny human — but many of my friends who have recently become mothers talk about how difficult it is to make time to prioritize their own happiness, and how guilty they feel when they do. I think a lot of my friends who are moms, when asked, “Are you happy?”, would have a very similar answer to that sitcom character: recounting the happiness of their partners and children in place of their own. But are they happy? Are they allowed to be? What changes would they need to make to get there? And is our society set up to let them do that?
This ties in, too, to how our culture defines success differently for women. Our individual successes tend to be discounted if we aren’t simultaneously keeping those around us happy. A woman’s career win won’t receive the same reverence if there’s a failed marriage in its wake, a litmus test that is rarely if ever applied to men. The ultimate success, for a woman, is that good ol’ myth of “having it all,” aka a thriving family, partner, and social life — in addition to a high-powered career.
So what do you do when you realize you’ve fallen into the happiness by proxy trap? First, you have to give yourself permission to change. You have to forgive yourself for not catering to everyone’s happiness before your own. You have to acknowledge how important it is to define and pursue a happiness all your own. Remind yourself that placing a priority on your own happiness doesn’t automatically mean the people around you will suffer horribly or sink into despair. It’s tricky to rebalance your relationship dynamics with people, especially people who are used to treating you as their personal happiness machine, but trust me, you can find balance.
Then, give yourself a moment to reassess. A friend of mine recently wrote out a list of things that made her truly happy. She expected it to be filled with big, transformative things: world travel, music festivals, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Instead, she was surprised at how simple and attainable everything on her list turned out to be: cuddling with her cats, making meaningful connections with friends, getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, being creative. As we talked, I realized my list is very similar.
Happiness isn’t nearly as complicated as we make it out to be.
Finding your own happiness often doesn’t require huge changes. Instead, it’s a re-prioritizing of what’s really important, and a refocusing on your own needs. Chances are, they’re simpler, cheaper, and more attainable than you realize.
We put so much energy into creating and maintaining the happiness of others; it’s time to shine some of that light back on our own lives. Are you happy? Because you deserve to be.