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,
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,
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
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
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
Taken from the Page of Authentic Femininity