Q: You are internationally known as the world's leading expert in personal strengths. What led you to bring your life-strengthening message to women in the first place?
MB: The leading data on women's happiness over the last 40 years is compelling and disappointing. Women have gained greater power, broader influence, higher education and more money. Women earn 60 percent of all MAs, and 37 percent of women are in senior management supervisory positions, compared to 31 percent of men. There are all sorts of significant advances in rights, responsibilities and influence that women have achieved over 40 years, but according to the research, during that same time period, women's daily life satisfaction has gone downhill consistently both relative to where they were 40 years ago and relative to men. Men are actually slightly happier now than they were, probably due to the slight increase in prosperity that we've had, while women's daily satisfaction has dropped steadily, even given that greater prosperity.
It's true of women in the work force, those not working, who have kids or don't, and it's true of 12th-grade girls. Over last 40 years, among 12th-graders who have been studied every single year, it's fairly clear now that boys' life satisfaction is trending up, while 12th-grade girls' life satisfaction is trending down. And over the last 15 years or so, consistently, 12th-grade girls are more anxious, more stressed and have less subjective well-being than boys.
As a researcher, I find this trend discouraging: Half of our population is experiencing decreasing net happiness and satisfaction with life. When we look at what makes people engaged and fulfilled with their lives, everyone from economists to psychologists seems to agree that the feeling of self-efficacy, feeling valued and effective and in your "strength zone" is critical—that the happiest, most successful people are those who have figured out ways to play to the best of themselves in each part of their lives. As an employee, wife, spouse, mother or daughter, they find themselves in situations or activities where they really feel that their strengths are engaged and called upon; they feel "in the zone." My work has centered at the intersection of those two knowledge bases—the research revealing the downward trend in women's life satisfaction and the understanding that your strength zone is one of the causes of life satisfaction and happiness—and I felt that this is an area where I have insight and can make a useful contribution.
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