Happiness has become a serious health issue. If you Google the words ‘happiness and longevity’ you’ll get over a million results — and while many of the claims will be spurious, you’ll find plenty of scientific evidence that being happy is good for you and probably helps you live longer.
Whether or not this convinces you, you almost certainly want to be happy anyway. So what are the basic ingredients for happiness? And do the same ones work for both genders?
A study in the rather sweetly named Journal of Happiness Studies has reported that when asked what made them happy, three of the four things men mentioned far more often than women did were sport, being liked and having a good social life (doubtless involving alcohol). The fourth, you may not be surprised to hear, was sexual activity — which does appear from all the studies to be undeniably important in keeping the average man happy.
But is it as important to the happiness of women?
Increasingly, women do want a satisfying sex life too, and many now have the same opportunities as men for finding willing partners. Their contentment, however, is quite a complex matter.
One of us (CW) conducted a survey among women about what they wanted from life. Perhaps predictably, a loving relationship came top of the wish list. But they also wanted much more time and space for themselves, plus contact with children and grandchildren and lots of holidays. Additionally, and very importantly, they wanted to be taken seriously and listened to.
Until the second world war, male-female relationships hadn’t changed much since Jane Austen’s day when there was a definite quid pro quo: men were provided with food, sex and laundry and women acquired status and security. But as women have become more educated and able to provide for themselves, they often expect less in the way of financial provision but much more equality, companionship, romance, love and conversation.
Byron believed that ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart/ ’Tis woman’s whole existence.’ Yet what we’ve learned in our consulting room suggests that men’s relationships are now more integral to their lives and happiness than they once were, while women’s relationships are no longer their entire reason for living.
For both genders, though, adults in relationships tend to be happier than those who are not. A 2013 study on the nation’s wellbeing by the Office of National Statistics showed that married people, or those in civil partnerships, were the happiest, rating their life satisfaction on average at 7.8 out of 10. Cohabiting couples came next with 7.6, followed by widowed or single people with an average of 7.25. Last came divorced and separated adults who rated their happiness at 6.8.
So relationships have great potential to increase happiness — but they can also be a huge source of unhappiness.
Most men who are extricating themselves from unhappy relationships tell us that there was insufficient sex — particularly of the joyously passionate variety. As a result, they report feeling unwanted and undervalued. And those men we see who are being rejected in the marital bed often believe that the reason for this is physical. They say: ‘I expect her new lover has much bigger equipment.’ Or: ‘When do you think she began to find my penis inadequate?’
The truth is that most women leave men for very different reasons, though when we point this out, the average male looks unconvinced. In fact, our female patients generally tell us they’re ending a relationship because of a lack of communication and companionship — and because they’ve never felt ‘listened to’.
One couple we saw recently typified what can go wrong. The man demanded that we ‘fix’ his partner so that she’d be as enthusiastic about sex as when they had met a decade before. She told us that he showed no interest in her, and that she did not feel inclined to have regular sex with him until he treated her like a person rather than a plaything. The breaking point had occurred not long before when he’d poured her a cup of coffee one morning. This roused her to fury because he hadn’t noticed she’d stopped drinking it five years ago. On such trifles are whole families torn apart.
After years of treating people’s sex and relationships problems, we believe that a heck of a lot of unhappiness could be avoided if adults focused on what they like about their partners, rather than on their shortcomings. We’re also convinced that couples would be much happier if men took the trouble to ask about their partner’s day — and listened to what she said — and if women routinely and enthusiastically said: ‘How would you fancy making love later?’
Christine Webber’s ebook Get the Happiness Habit, published by Bloomsbury Reader, is out now.