What Makes Women Happy?

Author: Ronda Chervin

What Makes Women Happy?

By Ronda Chervin

Perhaps you found the title of this article startling. Of course we all long for happiness. That's not the problem. But as veterans of life many of us are surprised even to survive the miseries of human existence, much less hope for happiness.

And, as believers in the promises of Christ, we know that complete happiness comes only after this life in union with God.

If only God can fill the God-sized vacuum He has created in our hearts, as Pascal put it, them why even try for happiness here and now? And yet? And yet somehow it is also part of our human nature to wish for whatever joy is possible in the present or whatever part of the future is within our planning. We also know for certain that it is impossible to love others without wishing for their happiness, not only in heaven but also on earth.

A grandmother, 55 years of age, entering I hope into the "wise old woman" stage of my life, I recently started pondering the question of what elements are essential to the happiness of women on a human level from a Christian point of view. Many of these same ingredients would fit into an article about the happiness of men as well, but since I am a woman, I shall limit my observations to the elements in the context of the feminine way of life.

Will these be merely personal thoughts with no universal weight? To avoid that possibility I have drawn from an unexpected source of truth about women: a man-John Paul II, as expressed in his apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. To bring you, the reader into the picture, I am asking you to begin by answering a series of questions-one group for women and one for men who might be intrigued by the subject of this article.

For women only:

1/ What are the ways you show your love to others? Include in your answer the names of the people who benefit from your love, such as family, friends, co-workers, parishioners, or any others who are served by your efforts.

2/ List the qualities of your personality, your gifts and talents that you value in yourself. Who are others who appreciate these qualities and gifts?

3/ With whom can you share the happenings and feelings you experience in your daily life?

4/ Considering both past and present circumstances, what people have provided most for your feeling of protection and security- economically, emotionally, and spiritually?

5/ Who are true leaders you have followed in the past and whom you now seek for direction? These may be known personally or those you know about through the media.

For men only:

1/ List the names of women whose love has added to the happiness in your life-include family, women at work, friends, parishioners, etc.

2/ Who are women whom you have affirmed by your delight in their individual personalities and gifts?

3/ With what women of the past or present would you enjoy talking about their daily life and yours?

4/ Who are girls or women who have benefited from your protection or been made more secure through your efforts-economically, emotionally, spiritually?

5/ What women have been happy to follow you as a leader?

In what follows, I will try to show why I believe that the answers to these questions set the framework for the happiness of women. I say framework because a woman who is grateful for the fundamental goodness of her life can certainly become extremely unhappy during a period of special stress or terrible pain. Conversely, I would maintain that even a woman with no specific cross will not be happy if these basic needs are not met.

Giving Your Love to Others

Edith Stein, a philosopher Carmelite nun who was recently beatified, has an interesting explanation for why most women put giving love before all else in terms of feeling fulfilled. She claims that because of our biological capacity to bear a human being within our own body and to feed the babe from own breasts, all women, even those who do not give birth, are predisposed toward intimate self-giving to others in need.

Such self-donation, or what John Paul II calls "the sincere gift of self," takes many forms: home-making, cooking, showing affection, personal service in work situations, and parish ministries, to name a few. The gift of love may be in the form of a touch, food, a glance of love, or the transmission of wisdom. The famous passage from scripture, Proverbs 31, describes the good woman as a dispenser of plenty: food, clothing, but also teachings of kindness. When Vatican II (The Church in the Modern World, 60) reflects on the involvement of women in nearly all spheres of life there is added "according to their own nature," which can be interpreted as a safeguard to the natural motherly roles of women. One of the greatest miseries for a woman is to be shut off from giving love by isolation, loneliness, or rejection.

Think of the pain of a mother of many whose grown family members are now scattered in faraway places, or of lonely widows. A single, consecrated, or married woman whose working life has been involved in helping others will feel bereft herself at the time of a forced retirement. Most painful of all are situations where those who really need a woman's love will not receive it from her hands because they have rejected her out of pride or resentment. Rebellious teenagers come to mind, but also consider younger Sisters who reject the wisdom of the older women in their community, or single women who have been rejected by men to whom they want to be close.

Many women also suffer because service they give day by day, hour by hour, unstintingly, is taken for granted and rarely appreciated. Much feminist protest against women's traditional roles springs from centuries of ingratitude. Male readers take notice if this lack of gratitude applies to you!

Women who suffer from frustration in their desire to give the love that is in their hearts for from bitterness at the lack of appreciation they receive for care given can take heart from reading the lives of the women saints. Many wonderful models of generous women include Mary, Mother of the Church and Refuge of Sinners, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Elizabeth Seton, Saint Frances Cabrini, and our present day holy Mother Teresa.

In times of exhaustion and depression it is good to read the New Testament to see how often Jesus proclaims that it is little deeds of love for the needy that He appreciates the most and will reward the most.

If you do not feel that you have sufficient outlets for giving your love to the needy, you might want to pray for discernment about a change in your life at this time-for example, consider forgoing the security or good salary of an impersonal job for one that would afford more opportunities for warm personal contact. Would more time spent on volunteer work in the parish help?

Being Valued for Your Unique Personality and Talents

Even if most women get their greatest satisfaction and happiness from giving love, I find that we nevertheless feel rather unhappy and sometimes extremely sad if no one delights in individual aspects of our personalities having nothing to do with our main areas of service. Such needs sometimes erupt in the form of resentment at feeling trapped in an endless round of duties. Older women used to say "there's no pizzazz in my life." Younger women might complain that they don't feel much "turned on" by what they are doing.. Feeling ugly or bored is the antithesis to being sparked by others' appreciation for one's uniqueness.

A woman expresses her individuality and her talents in varied ways, for example creative hobbies, dress, cosmetics, hairstyles, and interior decoration. She can also feel very affirmed through the physical intimacy involved in married life, a lifetime dedication to the arts, or in a personal prophetic ministry to society or to the Church.

When a woman imagines that God is happy with her only when she is doing her duty sacrificially and against the grain, I believe that she is mistaken. When she responds freely to the prompting of His Holy Spirit and through specific efforts adds to the beauty and goodness of the world around her, is this not also God's will? Men need to second these motions by expressing their delight in the women who surround them. They should provide support-from comments about their dress to the affirmation of their unique talents. It is important that married men show their delight in their wives emotionally as well as physically.

Women who feel their gifts are inadequately appreciated by the men around them need not despair. Having recourse to prayer, we feel beautiful and loved as unique persons in the arms of Jesus.

Matthew 25:25 instructs us to use rather than bury our talents. John Paul II reminds us in his Apostolic Letter (No. 13) that Jesus loved each woman He met in an individual way. Specific women were chosen for prophetic proclamation of His truths, such as the woman at the well or Mary Magdalene. When we call to mind such incredible personalities as Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Birgitta of Sweden, and Dorothy Day, we realize that our Church extols women as leaders. Think of how powerful is Our Lady of the Apparitions, a sort of divine dramatist creating images that reach out to people of diverse cultures.

If you feel that your talents are not being used sufficiently, try not to get bogged down in anger or self-pity. Pray that Our Lord might provide you areas for greater self-expression.

To Share One's Life in Conversation

The talkativeness of women has been the butt of jokes from time immemorial. Some of us are really chatterboxes who need to learn the value of silence. But this does not mean that the sharing of feelings and events is not a legitimate daily need for people, and women in particular. Some anthropologists derive the talkativeness of women from early tribal patterns. While the men were off hunting-an occupation which demands silence to avoid frightening the animals away-the women were suckling their babes around the fireside, preparing the food, and weaving. Naturally they would spend their time in conversation with other women.

Whatever the roots of the need for verbal sharing, we know that women seem to want to live empathetically in the world of the other to a degree not necessary to most males. Men are more inclined to get to the point, find out the gist, and then take action based on what they have learned.

Having no one to talk to intimately is one of the most feared possibilities for most women. Happily we can always talk to God Who is never too busy for us. Jesus kept us a constant conversation with Catherine of Siena with whom He prayed the Liturgy of the Hours each day and taught to read. The women saints all had close spiritual friendships: Mary and Elizabeth, Scholastica and Benedict, Frances of Rome and her sister-in-law, Birgitta and her husband, Teresa and John, Elizabeth Seton and her daughters and male friends-lay and priestly.

The psalmist tells us "how good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell in unity" (Psalm 133). Jesus had His closest personal friends in Bethany, including Martha and Mary (John 11:5). Christian men should not shrink from engaging in personal conversation with the women in their lives: wives, daughters, co- workers, and parishioners. You may need that closeness more than you think. The encyclical The Church in the Modern World advises that the family is not just for survival but also should become a communion of persons. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ- not a gathering of mere acquaintances.

If you find that you do not have enough close friends, try joining groups of people with similar interests and pray that God will send you the companionship you need.

To be Protected, Sheltered, Secure

Some very independent women of our time like to project an image of strength to prove that they can make it alone-without the need to lean on men. Indeed the image of a Christian women is not one of passive, weak dependence. Yet the religious woman is also not to be some kind of lone Amazon.

It seems to be a natural part of being a woman to need to feel secure in order to be happy. Ultimately we are sheltered in the hiding place that is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Yet, God will often give us human forms of protection and security in the form of a home, a Church, the embrace of a husband, or being surrounded by family, friends, or prayer-partners. Efforts are being made in our time to overcome the loneliness some singles feel by increasing closeness in the parish.

Men need to become sensitive to the right of women to protection in the form of sexual responsibility, support for widows, for single mothers, for the separated, and divorced. The marketplace needs to provide greater job security for women.

The women saints-such strong feminine models, were always grateful for the security of loving men: God provided Mary with Joseph. Saint Therese of Lisieux was deeply attached to her father and suffered unbearable sorrow when he underwent a total collapse. Saint Jane of Chantal desperately needed the advice and leadership of Saint Francis de Sales.

Do you feel insecure? I have found that often I fail to reach out to those who might help me most because I put up a false facade of strength out of pride. The Holy Spirit has been urging me on to become much more frank about my needs, even if it feels humiliating. Instead of crying into the pillow, I wake my husband and make him hold me and talk to me. Instead of cherishing feelings of uncertainty about how people over me in work or ministry might be reacting to me, I tell them how vulnerable I am and ask for their affirmation. Some women who might be pretending they don't need child-support have to demand what is just.

To Follow a True Leader

What would we do without Christ as out light, our strength, and out leader! Women who have ways to love, appreciation for their talents, close friends to talk to, and have fathers, mothers, bosses, and teachers as examples as well.

As Catholics, we have not only Jesus but the saints, the holy father, bishops, priests, and lay leaders. They may be weak or they may be tyrants. Such leaders do not give joy to women or men followers. Women seem to have an even greater need than men to lean on the strength and guidance of strong leaders.

It is true that our essential dignity comes from union with God, as John Paul says so beautifully in his Apostolic Letter (no. 5), but it is also a great gift to be able to imitate Mary in being a fruitful handmaid, first of the Lord (Luke 1:38) and then as the follower and helper of a strong leader. Saint Monica needed the guidance of Saint Ambrose. Saint Louise de Merillac rejoiced to be able to serve under the pioneering leadership of Saint Vincent de Paul. Would there have been such a holy missionary as Edel Quinn without the impetus first of Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary? Women and men also flourish under the direction of strong women as in the case of Saint Raymond of Capua who was inspired by Saint Catherine of Siena, or the priest followers of Saint Catherine of Genoa.

To secure the happiness of women, men need to overcome timidity and uncertainty in allowing the Holy Spirit to form them in heroic virtue. Women who suffer from lack of true leadership may find that they are being called to fill the gap. After all, it was Mary Magdalene who urged the apostles out of hiding to seek the Risen Lord. Still, most women leaders I know do not feel happy about assuming such a role indefinitely, preferring team effort or discipleship. (Perhaps this may be one of the psychological reasons why the Church teaches that it is the men who are called to the so visible leadership role of priesthood.)

Whether man or women, leaders are essential to the spiritual growth of Christians in love and service. Let us pray that they answer God's call without shrinking at the enormity of the vocation.

Blessed is the woman whose life is gifted with these five basic elements leading to happiness. Can we still be joyful is some of these are woefully deficient? After all, Jesus promises us crosses, not contentment on earth. Yet we are enjoined by Saint Paul always to be joyful. The secret lies in making love of God and neighbor our focus with everything else as a gift to be hoped for but not demanded. No matter what changes, losses, and even excruciating pain we undergo, God's love abides and there will always be others who need our caring. Let us pray for one another- for happiness-despite all that makes it seem impossible.

(Originally published in the Winter, 1992 issue of hearth Magazine.)

Taken from the Page of Authentic Femininity