Women have achieved equal numbers in the workforce over the past 50 years but research shows that, collectively, they are far from contented. What is missing from our work culture?

The answer, suggests Peruvian academic María Pia Chirinos in a paper delivered at a recent conference of the London-based Home Renaissance Foundation, is relationships based on care for the person. And this essential condition for happiness can even be missing in our homes.

In the following email interview, Dr Chirinos, who is Director for Institutional Relations and Professor at the Department of Humanities at the University of Piura, Perú, discusses the background to this problem and where the solution lies.

MercatorNet: The desire for happiness is a primary motive in all that human beings do, so we should know a lot by now about how to achieve this sense of wellbeing. Yet there is research pointing to a decline in happiness among certain groups – women, young people – over the past 50 years. What has gone wrong?

Maria Pia Chirinos: Happiness is always an aim. We look for it, but as soon as we think we have found it we realize that something has gone wrong. We are not animals with instincts that tell us what to do. We are free beings, and we are open to different answers and actions, to success and failure.

Is that a problem? In a way, it is. At the same time, to know that our happiness is not perfect is good news.

Every epoch has had its own idea of happiness and the 20th century was no exception, but it was a time when the concept underwent several changes of meaning. At the beginning, happiness was synonymous with progress: science would gradually eliminate all problems. But two World Wars contradicted that idea.

In the 1960s, happiness, along with “peace” and “love”, became associated with sexual freedom, or rather, sex without commitment. For women, happiness meant liberation from family and home. In the 1970 Sweden promoted an idea of happiness based on an individualistic, independent and autonomous life – freedom in an absolute way.

Why so many meanings? At the bottom of this issue we find one single claim about our human condition: we are the ones who can say what makes us happy. We are rational beings that do not depend on others. And this excludes even God.

The variety of meanings about happiness is a consequence of ideologies. Each ideology focuses on one or two “notes” of the symphony of human experience: progress and science, freedom and sex, work and equality, independence and autonomy… And each ideology promises happiness if, and only if, our lives develop around the chosen values.

But happiness is something deeper and comes from a more comprehensive notion of being human. What has gone wrong? We have come up against the truth about ourselves!

In the background of these shifting ideas about happiness is the reality of daily work. How did the culture of work contribute to the unhappiness of women?

Work at the beginning of the 20th century was understood as a male reality. It was something done by men outside the home, and what women did at home was not regarded as work. Men’s work was a sign of power: economic power, power over nature and also other human beings. This is a negative way of understanding work, which feminists on the whole did not understand. Feminism’s struggle for equality centred on economic power and access to the workforce made women more materialistic, and not particularly happy.

Women, it seems, are still very focused on work, or at least well-paid jobs, since the “gender wage gap” is still a major policy concern. But some feminists have a different angle on what we might call the “problem of work” – could you tell us about care ethics?

Some surprisingly “different voices” emerged from the feminist chorus during the 1980s. They discovered that something was not working right with work. Work as only empowerment or self-affirmation was a chimera.

Faced with a view that men and women are merely rational, autonomous and independent beings, this new wave promotes an ethic of care. Care necessarily implies an attitude of concern in the carer and a state of vulnerability in the person who is being cared for. Wherever there is a need – and here we are also referring to physical and everyday needs – there is room for a caring and humane response, as well as a technical one. We are neither supermen nor superwomen; we are vulnerable and we need to be cared for by others in order to develop as human beings.

Therefore, rather than efficiency or success, these feminist voices decided to talk about empathy and care, which is relevant to paid work as well as home work. They also make an interesting distinction between “care about” and “care for”.

The way a caregiver meets another’s needs can be both emotional and professional. Emotional care involves a subjective bond in the agent that relates his or her action to the recipient of care. Professional care goes beyond this attitude of concern and involves different actions that foster the flourishing or well-being of the cared-for. Emotional care is also called “caring about”. Professional care is called “caring for”. Caring for can include an emotional attitude, but entails something more: ability to meet needs, standards of excellence, experience, practical learning… Caring for is practice that seeks the well-being of the cared-for.

So perhaps the path to happiness is not money and status but relationships. What did the Harvard men study tell us about this?

It is an amazing study. Scientists asked what makes for a healthy life. Why do we spend so much money on diseases? It is much more interesting to know how to keep healthy. The result was amazing. After 75 years following more than 700 men, the answer to their question was that the key to a healthy life was the same as for happiness: to foster good relationships with family, friends, and community. Not only relationships, but good, deep and stable relationships keep us happier and healthier. Social relations are really good for us. Loneliness turns out to be toxic.

A second idea: it is not about number of people you relate to, but about quality: to live in the middle of good relationships is protective. Good relationships protect not only our health in the usual sense but our brains.

However, those relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time, some of them are not. And this is a third conclusion from the study: we need relationships we can rely on when we are in need. It is not a matter of feelings.

But why is it so difficult to put these ideas into action? Because we are humans and to create relationships is complicated, difficult, and lifelong. It never ends.

Another Harvard expert in happiness, Tal-Ben Shahar, adds some ideas to this topic. One that I find very challenging is to react always with gratitude. This is not easy at all, because we live a very individualistic bubble and do not recognize the many good things that happen around us. But just trying to be always thankful could be the way to break out of our bubbles, and this attitude helps us to foster deep relationships too.

How do we learn to care? More importantly, where do we learn to care?

Let’s start with the second question. Where do we learn to care?

The issue of care enables us to look at the human condition in a different way. It reveals our fragility, our dependence, our needs that are bodily and not only spiritual or cultural ones. And these notes are with us always: not only when we are children or elderly, but in our daily life. Therefore, home emerges as every human being’s first social network and their first source of humanisation, so long as the caregiving activities that strengthen it are promoted.

Feminism’s struggle for equality in the workplace has done us a great disservice. Rather than enabling men to participate more in family life, the context in which this would have been possible – the home and the work that goes with it – has been stripped of its value.

I am not talking of women staying always at home; of course we must have fair opportunities and rewards in the paid workforce. I am talking of discovering the value of caregiving activities that are a must for all the members of a family. We care about and for others when we clean, cook and iron. We foster relationships when others can rely on those tasks and when they appreciate them and live a sincere gratitude. I think that this pandemic has helped to discover the value of all these activities and how decisive they are for the peace of a family.

At home we can also live some rituals that give our life a deep meaning: to eat together, to cook meals for ordinary and not ordinary occasions, to decorate the dining room in a special way, etc. Those are rituals around a very bodily need -nutrition- that make us more human not only because animals do not behave in that way but especially because we refused to be considered machines.

How do we learn care?

Learning it from those who give it. That is the biggest challenge: we need examples, good examples. And this is particularly true for those women that have chosen to work outside home in wealthy countries. The care that children and the elderly receive in First World countries is given at the expense of immigrant women who stop looking after their own children in their countries of origin. Rich countries know the value of care and their solution to the problem highlights something that is rarely brought up in debates about immigration.

People in rich countries are becoming deskilled in the practice of cooperation, because they do not foster relationships. And cooperation is at the basis of home and family. Cooperation is needed when difficulties arise, when differences separate. But we have no skills in empathy and we prefer to control than to cooperate.

Family life is vitally important, yet many families today are broken or never properly formed. Can we run courses on empathy and caring instead, or do we really have to try harder to encourage marriage and family life?

What does “to try harder to encourage marriage and family life” mean? I think it means to spread the idea that fidelity is possible. To give good examples or testimonies. Those are the best “courses”.

But we have to offer a realistic image of fidelity. Maybe we are giving a too unreal image of what a happy family means. It is not a matter of good or soft feelings. The practice of making and sustaining a family is a difficult task that takes a lot of emotional effort and hard work. In family life, there are some important lessons that we have to learn: how to fail, how to get up again, how to forgive and also to forget.

Broken families or families that are never properly formed cannot be rejected. They also have the responsibility of humanising their members and they can reach a deep understanding of family even if their families are different.

Regarding this issue I see a dangerous attitude. I don’t like to talk in terms of “we” and “they”. To create a home or to sustain it is something accessible to all human beings. The problem is that there is a deficit of good models and that care has become a very scarce good. To share values such as fidelity, resilience and generosity the first step is to include different families in our relationships, because it could be also true that we can learn from them, too.

But if we accept the challenge that happiness has a lot to do with relationships, with stable and deep relationships, then we have to admit that a relevant means is to encourage marriage in a responsible way. That is, knowing the compromise that it involves and having the right image of family life. And to achieve it, not only theory about marriage is required but rather, good examples.

* Professor Chirinos’ paper, “Care, Flourishing, Happiness: the Challenge at Home in Everyday Life”, was presented at the 5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference of the Home Renaissance Foundation (London): Happy Homes, Happy Society? The contribution of domestic life in a time of social changes. Short video introductions to her paper and others can be seen at the conference home page.

Maria Pia Chirinos

María Pia Chirinos, is Director for Institutional Relations and Professor at the Department of Humanities at the University of Piura, Perú. Her specialty is the athropology of work.