Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

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by Ariel Gore

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Happiness has become a serious business. Where twentiethcentury psychology focused on depression and illness, in the new millennium scientists have begun focusing on “positive psychology”—the study of happiness. Ariel Gore first became intrigued by this subject when she discovered that Positive

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Happiness has become a serious business. Where twentiethcentury psychology focused on depression and illness, in the new millennium scientists have begun focusing on “positive psychology”—the study of happiness. Ariel Gore first became intrigued by this subject when she discovered that Positive Psychology was the most popular course on the Harvard campus. As she read deeper into the topic, she noticed something disturbing: everyone in this happy land was a man. Worse still, some of these new “experts” seemed hell-bent on proving that women with traditional values and breadwinning husbands—those who had made “an effort to expect less,” according to one sociologist—were more content than women with feminist values. The more she read the more she wondered: Can a woman be smart, empowered, and happy? Determined to find out, Gore began her own “study in living”— a journey into the feminine history, science, and experience of happiness. Her results, chronicled with humor and curiosity in Bluebird, are by turns fascinating and enriching. A woman’s happiness may not come easy, and it may not take the forms prescribed by popular culture. But, as Gore discovers, it is not only possible but necessary. Bluebird is a smart, no-nonsense, uplifting study of the real secret of joy, and whether it’s truly at odds with the goals of modern women.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Chang
…[Gore's] research is absorbing, her idea of happiness as a dynamic force is appealing, and her conclusions seem sensible.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
Gore (The Hip Mama Survival Guide; The Mother Trip) turns her attention to positive psychology—the work of Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), and their many followers who have written books with the word happiness in the titles. She decided to try some of the common suggestions of these psychologists, such as being grateful, meditating, and doing more absorbing activities, and enlisted 100 other women to keep journals about their happiness efforts. Gore found that many women have reservations about this happiness phenomenon, feeling it is selfish to be happy if loved ones aren't or being concerned that gratitude for the good things in their lives is incompatible with feminist inclinations to reform and achieve. Gore interweaves musings on psychology and happiness with her story of sending one child off to college while pregnant with a second. VERDICT Female readers of positive psychology books will like this one, and the many fans of Noelle Oxenhandler's The Wishing Year and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love will enjoy Gore's personal narrative.—Mary Ann Hughes, formerly with Neill P.L., Pullman, WA
Kirkus Reviews
An amateur scholar's personal exploration of the science of joy, and what her findings mean for American women. When Hip Mama founding editor Gore (How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead, 2007, etc.) heard on NPR that Harvard's new Positive Psychology class was pushing the enrollment limit, she dug up her happiness diary from college. The journal was inspired by psychotherapist Marion Milner's book project of recording and analyzing moments of happiness in her life. Similarly, Bluebird chronicles Gore's ups and downs in her personal quest for happiness, including one pregnancy at 18 and another planned with her partner at 37 (the latter coincides with the writing of the book). The book is also a distillation of the history of happiness studies, with commentary on America's and women's unique relationship with the emotion. These more substantive chapters, each commencing with a journal quotation from a member of Gore's everyday "council of experts," alternate with chapters comprised of select responses she elicited from 100 women to questions like "How heavily do you weigh happiness when making life decisions?" Nearly all happiness studies cite gratitude and selflessness as keys to contentment. Hedonic adaptation theory holds that humans have a set range for happiness, determined more by genetics than by changes in life circumstances. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes happiness as "flow" or optimal experience-being completely, unselfconsciously absorbed in a task. Women, however, according to statistics on depression-which are a closed circle and inherently flawed, Gore says-seem to have a harder time achieving happiness. In discussing America's addiction toantidepressants, the author occasionally slips into oversimplified diatribes that reveal her California hippie upbringing and undermine her otherwise convincing points. She concludes that "[h]appiness, like some central seed, is actually contained within the pursuit."Ideal for Eat, Pray, Love fans in search of positive psychological theory.

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Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

By Ariel Gore

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Ariel Gore
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3606-4

smile pretty: a cultural history of women and happiness

The young wife . . . owes it to her husband and to the world, to be cheerful. She is seldom aware of the amazing importance of this quality to her own happiness, as well as to that of others.

—william alcott, The Young Wife, 1837

the truth we are trying not to know

It made me happy to withdraw my job application and go to the café instead, read and write and eat blackberry cobbler and watch the rain.


New Year’s Day arrives with freezing rain and news of closed bridges. I decline dinner invitations, explain that I’m tired and nauseous and "anyway, I’m not drinking right now." I’m surprised when these little clues don’t give me away. "I’m six weeks pregnant," I have to explain, rather slowly.

Friends and family react with wide eyes and stunned silences.

"Is this a joke?" my mother practically screams into the phone.

It’s not that I’m too young, as they thought I was when I got pregnant with my daughter at eighteen. It’s not even that they think I’m too old. It’s just that . . . it’s been so long.

I have my own quiet doubts about my choice. I’ve always wanted to have a second child, but the opportunity was slow to present itself. By the time my daughter started high school, I figured I’d missed my chance. Who has children more than fifteen years apart? As college catalogs arrived in the mail and Maia studied for her SATs, I readied to change my life, too. I would be an empty nester by the time I turned thirty-seven, finally able to do all the things I’d heard women without children do—like work even harder. I applied for a job in a cold city. I could finally make some real money. My partner was about to open a community acupuncture clinic and didn’t want to move, and I didn’t want to sell my house in Portland, so I planned to commute the two thousand miles. I’d rent a studio apartment in the cold city, fly home on the weekends. When I envisioned my new life, it seemed hard and dark and serious. I saw myself trudging through arctic winds between concrete studio and concrete institution, but I didn’t question the wisdom of my plan. It made good financial sense, after all, and who was I to question good financial sense?

When the desire to have another baby whispered in my ear, I tried to ignore it. I told myself that the quiet voice was fear in disguise—having a kid at home was the only way I’d ever known adult life. Surely all mothers of teenagers felt this strange urge to begin again. I decided to ask around. I posed the question to one friend and then another, but my mother-friends shook their heads and laughed. With teenage children on their way out the door, these moms had no longing to "go back." I wanted to feel the way they did, the way I understood I was supposed to feel—relieved, finished. And for a time, I convinced myself that I did. But then something inside of me started to shift.

Maybe the only thing harder than facing an honest desire is denying it.

I was out at a smoky underground tavern, Etta James on the jukebox, sharing a beer with a friend who’d always said she wanted to have a child. She talked as casually as she always had about finding the right partner, getting her career to a more stable place.

"You’ll be forty next year," I finally blurted, almost spraying her with my beer. "You still think the perfect time and situation is just going to present itself ? If you want to have a kid, you’ve got to work harder and smarter toward your goal."

She looked at me the way people look at you when you’ve just said something horribly inappropriate. And then she changed the subject.

A few days later, I sat in a folding chair in the shade of a sprawling California oak tree at the memorial service for my stepfather. He’d been the father I’d known, the one who helped build the playhouse in my kindergarten schoolyard, the one who showed me the beauty of a high Sierra mountain trail, the one I called from a pay phone on the coast of Spain when I realized I was pregnant with Maia. I scanned the row of faces to my left now—my mother and grandmother, my sister and nephew, my nearly grown daughter. It had been a long year of death in our extended family. My daughter’s father had died unexpectedly in his early fifties, my partner’s mother in her sixties, a young writer-friend in her early twenties, and now my rock of a stepdad in his late eighties. I closed my eyes. Enough death already, I thought. When I opened my eyes, I looked up into the branches of that old oak tree, and without running the idea past the good and practical critics in my brain, I said to God or to my stepdad or just to the tree and the blue sky behind it, "I’ll have another one if you want me to."

When we got home to Portland, I told my partner that I was ready to have another kid. She was game. Maria had wanted a baby since we got together six years earlier—I’d been the ambivalent one. Now we made lists of sperm banks, open adoption agencies, and possible known donors. I started tracking my cycle. I’d take my own advice and work hard and smart toward my goal. We’d try everything at once and see which path opened up in front of us.

Three months later, I was pregnant.

Taking the job in that cold city and having a baby weren’t mutually exclusive, exactly, but by the time those two pink lines showed up on the pregnancy test, it had become clear that I didn’t want to go anywhere.

It’s funny the way the right decision only seems obvious once you’ve made it.

When I read the beginning of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love, I understood how she felt. At age thirty-one, despite a lifetime spent building toward that mythic moment when she’d get pregnant and "settle down" as she understood she was supposed to, it hit her like a revelation: "I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me." In the face of every "supposed to" she knew, she had to confront the reality that she didn’t want to be married anymore, didn’t want to live in her big house anymore, and didn’t want to have a baby.

There are choices we can go either way with in this life. And then there are the truths that keep insisting themselves to us.

Gilbert’s vision is a throwback to another writer born more than a century earlier. When Charlotte Perkins Gilman collapsed with depression in the 1880s, she sought the treatment of the renowned "nerve specialist" Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. She showed up in his Philadelphia office with the earnest hope for a cure, and told him everything she had observed about her case. Her sickness vanished when she was away from her husband and daughter, she explained, but returned as soon as she got home. The arrogant Dr. Mitchell wasn’t interested in Gilman’s own observations about her life. His prescription was simple: "Live as domestic a life as possible . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live."

Gilman managed to follow the good doctor’s orders for a few years, but she sank deeper into her depression. "I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side," she later wrote. "I would crawl into remote closets and under beds . . . to hide from the grinding pressure of that distress."

In her 1892 short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," she wrote, "If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?"

Finally, "in a moment of clear vision," Gilman woke up to the source of her illness. She divorced her husband and took off for California, baby in tow—and with pen, brush, and pencil all close at hand.

More than a hundred years later, how many of us can hear the truths that keep insisting themselves to us? How many of us can listen? How many of us can act on our moments of clear vision? Our desires have been patronized and pathologized for so long it takes serious courage to acknowledge that they even exist.

"I was surprised as I started keeping this happiness journal," said Sonja, a doctor in her mid-thirties and one of the women on my council of experts. "The question of contentment came up for me almost every day. I was content to be at work. I am happy enough. But am I content just to be content? I want to be happy. My mom was sort of a malcontent until she found out that she was very ill and dying. Then she got content. She did a good job of it, but she wasn’t happy. It was just good enough. I want more."

Britt, a student and waitress in her mid-twenties, chimed in: "We’re made to feel selfish for making choices based on our own happiness instead of on other people or on our career. Sometimes I have to shake myself and say, ‘I’m not selfish! This is my life!’ "

It takes bravery to honor our right to make our own decisions; it takes work to uncover buried longings. It’s a lot of trouble not to do what’s expected of us. Every decade, the Dr. S. Weir Mitchells of the world—the talk show psychologists, advice columnists, and "experts"—come up with new formulas for what they say will make us happy. But do these new formulas work? Do they serve us?

"Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of a year?" Virginia Woolf asked an audience of women in 1929. "Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?"

It’s no wonder we’ve gotten a little jaded.

In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir put the happiness argument into perspective, saying,

Are not women of the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeper happier than the working-woman? It is not too clear what the word happy really means and still less what true values it may mask. There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them. In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being at rest. This notion we reject.

"I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty," de Beauvoir concluded.

Fair enough, but I propose that we can now interest ourselves in the fortunes of the individual when it comes to both our happiness and our liberty.

We can insist on liberty because we know it’s the foundation for long-term happiness. We know that our immediate experience might be easier if we bit our tongues and did what was expected of us—if we allowed ourselves to be condemned to stagnation—but we reject the notion that happiness consists in being at rest. Stagnant happiness isn’t the happiness we’re looking for.

We are here to evolve.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert describes running into an acquaintance who’d just found out she was pregnant. The woman was ecstatic, had always wanted to be a mother. "I saw the joy in her face and I recognized it," Gilbert writes. "This was the exact joy my face had radiated last spring, the day I discovered that the magazine I worked for was going to send me on assignment to New Zealand, to write an article about the search for giant squid. And I thought, ‘Until I can feel as ecstatic about having a baby as I felt about going to New Zealand to search for a giant squid, I cannot have a baby.’ "

Our bodies and our imaginations and our sleep patterns rebel when we try to trick ourselves into lives we don’t really want. Still, there are plenty of doctors, psychologists, acquaintances, and relatives who are more than eager to help us deny our truths and do what’s expected of us—to stay with the husband and have the baby, to take the fancy job in the cold city, to never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as we live. We are told what will make us happy as if we were all the same woman, as if we all share a single heart, as if we can’t all be right when we realize our disparate desires: another child, an intellectual life, more than contentment, a giant squid.

Excerpted from Bluebird by Ariel Gore.
Copyright © 2010 by Ariel Gore.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


Excerpted from Bluebird by Ariel Gore. Copyright © 2010 Ariel Gore. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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