I ask myself why I am so dissatisfied. I’ve got my health, fine children, a lovely new home, enough money... It’s as if ever since you were a little girl, there’s always been somebody or something that will take care of your life: your parents, or college, or falling in love, or having a child, or moving to a new house. Then you wake up one morning and there’s nothing to look forward to.
The magazines and television soaps of the time tried to tell women that the role of wife and mother was the most fulfilling there can be. After all, compared to women in earlier periods, or in other countries today the American housewife of the fifties had it easy. ‘Having it easy’, however, was little consolation; in reality it was precisely the problem. This kind of life was supposed to be all that a woman needed for fulfillment, but when she had achieved everything she was supposed to want, her life plan came to a dead stop. The suburban housewife lives an isolated existence in her comfortable home, equipped with labour-saving devices that allow her to complete her daily chores in an hour or two. In another hour at the supermarket she can gather the week’s food supply for the entire family. Her only role is to bring up a family, and her children soon spend all day at school, and much of the rest of their time watching television. Nothing else seems worth achieving.
Consider a quite different way of living. Over the past forty years, several groups of Australian Aboriginals who subsisted by hunting and gathering in remote desert areas have come into contact with Western civilization. Through this contact they have access to reliable supplies of food, steel axes, clothes, and many other goods. If quality of life depended on quantity of material possessions, this contact would be bound to improve the quality of life of the Aboriginal groups. Yet observers are agreed that it has had exactly the opposite effect. We do not have to idealize the nomadic Aboriginal life in order to recognize that it provides many opportunities for finding satisfaction in the tasks of obtaining the necessities of life. Richard Gould, an American anthropologist who lived with an Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer group, found that:
the daily lives of the nomadic Aborigines are essentially harmonious and rewarding. An individual grows up realizing what is expected of him. By acquiring and developing practical knowledge and skill he learns to fulfill these expectations and is rewarded immediately by his own satisfaction in achievement and in the long run by the esteem of his kin. When food comes from a shop, bought with a government welfare check provided by a well-meaning social worker eager to see that all Australians get what they are legally entitled to receive, the skills and knowledge acquired over a lifetime are immediately devalued. The result is deeply demoralizing. Almost everything that the members of the nomadic group used to spend their days doing has lost its point. It is no wonder that alcohol often becomes a major problem, and even when it does not, these formerly nomadic Aboriginals appear to be at a loss for anything to do.
The modern housewife in her tidy household and the Aboriginal Australian sitting on the dusty ground outside the store are suffering from the same malaise: the elimination of purpose from their lives. The need for purpose lies deep in our nature. We can observe it in other animals, especially those who, like us, are social mammals. The tiger, restlessly pacing back and forth behind the bars of a small concrete cell, is fortunately becoming a less common sight at the zoo. But the monkeys still kept in barren metal cages in laboratories, or the pigs confined for months on factory farms in stalls too small to allow them even to pace back and forth, are suffering from the same problem. When you provide a sow with food and a warm dry place to lie down, you have not provided her with everything she needs. Such animals exhibit what ethologists call ‘stereotypical behaviour’ — they restlessly gnaw at the bars of their pen, or stand rocking their heads back and forth. They are trying to make up for the absence of purposive activity in their lives. Even the caged factory farm hen devours her daily nutritional needs a few minutes pecking at the feed with which she is supplied and then is left with nothing at all to do. As a result she will restlessly peck at her companions and all factory farm hens are now ‘debeaked’ to stop them killing each other. Some relatively more enlightened keepers of animals now mix the day’s food with straw or other inedible material and scatter it across the floor of the cage, so that the animal must work to find it. Hens kept indoors can be given food that is very finely ground; then instead of getting their daily food intake in a few minutes, it may take them several hours.
On the modern view of work and leisure, as we apply it to humans, these devices make the animals work harder, reduce their leisure time, and so should make them worse off; but observation shows that the animals’ welfare is improved. Of course, such strategems are at best a poor imitation of the wide variety of activities that animals have available to them in their natural conditions. They do not make it acceptable to keep animals in barren cages; but their relative success should make us re-examine our attitude to work and leisure. It is clear that our quest for a purpose to our lives has its roots a long way back in our evolutionary history, and will not easily be eliminated.
There is one short cut to overcoming the need for purpose. For the pharmaceutical industry, an existential void is a marketing opportunity. In the sixties, suburban doctors started prescribing tranquillizers in increasing quantities to housewives who came to them feeling depressed. As the Rolling Stones sang in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’:
Kids are different today, I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way
Gets her through her busy day
Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door she took four more
What a drag it is getting old.
That is one way of ‘solving’ the dissatisfaction caused by a loss of purpose: turn the dissatisfied housewife into a contented zombie. It solves the problem only in the sense that alcohol solves the problems Australian Aboriginals have in adjusting to Western civilization, and crack and other drugs that solve the problems of unemployed Americans living in urban slums.
Not quite as addictive as heroin, less harmful than alcohol, but still problematic from an environmental perspective, is that other great modern tranquillizer, going shopping. Many people readily admit that shopping is not so much a means to obtain goods that they need, but rather their major recreational activity. A large dose of it seems to help overcome depression. Shopping is a modem substitute for more traditional hunter-gatherer activities. The shopping mall has replaced the old hunting grounds. Like gathering roots, seeds and berries in an arid environment, shopping can take a large portion of the day. It allows for the development of specialized forms of knowledge and skill. (How do you select the right items to gather? Where and when are the genuine bargains to be found?) Shopping can even pass as purposeful activity; its leisure component can be disguised or denied, in a way that it cannot if one spends the day playing golf.
Why was it mostly women who experienced such a loss of purpose in the fifties? At that time most men, but relatively few women, worked in jobs that held out the prospect of a promotion, an increase in responsibility and power. This is still often the case, if not quite to the same extent. So when one morning a man wakes up and asks himself, ‘Is this all there is to my life?’ he can quieten the doubts by thinking about that coming glorious day when he gets to move up to a more important position, with higher pay and more responsibility. That is why, as both employers and unions have found, a career structure, a ladder leading upwards, is often more crucial for job satisfaction than actual rates of pay. In contrast, for a housewife there is no promotion. Romance will fade, and the children will need their mother less and less. No wonder that many American housewives, once they had everything they were supposed to want, felt the meaningless of their existence more acutely than their husbands did.