Tim Lott: Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. Or a man. Or human

We expect so much of ourselves, and feel low when we fail, a simple life is happier.

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The decision by Allison Pearson, a top columnist, to move from the
Daily Mail after a bout of acute depression, comes hard on the heels of a spate of high-profile confessions of breakdown from high-achieving women.

Stephanie Merritt, Marian Keyes and Sally Brampton, all well-known writers, have gone public with their crippling disability. Other high-profile figures – among them the actor Emma Thompson and Coronation Street star Beverley Callard – have recently confessed to suffering patches of acute mental distress.

An article in The Guardian last week asked – what's gone wrong for women? Why, after all the advances they have made, do they suffer depression at three times the rate of men, and why are depression rates rising among women? Answers varied from the suggestion that men don't do enough housework to the idea that women are leaving childbirth too late.

But, given their higher levels of depression, are women really in a worse situation than men? Probably – though not necessarily for the reasons they think they are. Women and men are unhappy in different ways for different reasons. And for women, the reasons are much less straightforward, which is one reason why their unhappiness is so much more distressing and difficult to treat.

Being a lifelong sufferer with depression myself – and men, incidentally, commit suicide at three times the rate of women – I know that the main sources of depression, along with the obvious ones of stress and genetic inheritance, are uncertainty and confusion. People can cope with a great deal of unhappiness if they are clear about where the unhappiness stems from and what can and can't be done about it. Unhappiness bleeds into depression when inner contradictions – paradoxes, if you like – are constantly working within the mind, threatening the chaos of uncertainty.

Paradox and uncertainty are the lot of modern women. Having been sold the myth that they can "have it all" – what the Guardian writer, Kira Cochrane, called "the crazed pursuit of the perfect life" – they find that they are faced with pair after pair of irreconcilable opposites, some of them unconscious or denied.

Modern women quite reasonably want to have successful, satisfying careers and be good mothers and good friends and valuable members of the local community. They also want to remain desirable and perhaps fashionable. Who wouldn't? But to put these things into practice is extremely difficult.

If you want to work very hard at your career, you are not going to be able to spend so much time with your children. The alternative – to prioritise your children – may make you feel that you are slipping back into the oppressions of the 1950s and disadvantaged in the job market. That unsquareable circle alone would be enough to cause any woman who aspired to a career a lot of anxiety and heartache.

Along with wanting to be carers as well as have a career, many women, while not being slaves to fashion, want to be chic and fashionable. They want to love their bodies as they are, and yet feel attractive to others. They want to be more than "mere" housewives, and yet remain in charge of the household and children.

Add to that the faintly contradictory virtues they have come to expect from the modern man – strong yet sensitive, successful but not materialistic, caring yet masculine – the existential problems alone are formidable. And with gender roles more fluid, everything is a negotiation, or, if you prefer, an argument.

If, as often, the man earns more than the woman, does that mean his career should have a higher priority? Who chooses the curtains? Quite apart from the confusions of what it is realistic to hope for, there are straightforward practical problems. Pearson writes of being a "sandwich mother", i.e. leaving it late to have children and then finding yourself having to look after ageing parents as well. Late motherhood can also bring with it distressing fertility problems.Then there are historic forms of female disadvantage – the pay gap, exclusion from positions of power. There is plenty to feel bad about.

Men do have it better in some ways, partly because their desires and needs are more straightforward. Most men I know can go to work every day without feeling guilty about not seeing their children except in the evening and at the weekend. And most men don't follow fashion that closely or worry about their body image.

Most significantly of all, though, I suspect that men don't worry too much about being "good". This is a problem highlighted by the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who observes in the Guardian article, that "most girls are still brought up to be very good, and a good person is somebody who always feels that they can do better". She adds: "We're brought up on the principle that if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well. And actually, what women need to learn is that if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing badly – as long as you get it done."

So what makes men unhappy? Several things spring to mind. Men are more subject to loneliness than women, because they enjoy social networks that are less rich and tend to be less supportive of one another. Also, their sense of identity is very tied up with success or failure as workers. They are also trapped in their traditional role as family providers, which means there is a great deal of depression among unemployed men.

Many men see their success as a husband – archaically, perhaps – as connected with their success in being able to create a world in which their partner can feel content. But their partners may not be happy, for the reasons outlined above. And, partly because one of women's buried, ancient or denied imperatives is that men should be able to make them happy, a lot of women aren't especially appreciative of their husbands.

Many women make it a priority to be good friends, good mothers, good members of the community or good at their job, but many don't really think being appreciative of their husbands – or, if you like, a "good wife" – features very highly on the list. After all, that is what those housewives of the 1950s aspired to, and modern women are determined not to go back to that dreary prison.

Conversely, many men still do worry about being good husbands because there is no history of oppression to prohibit them from having that feeling. And the experience of many, if the unhappiness of their wives is anything to go by, is that they are failing.

Women will always have it worse: intellectually equal to men, yet more instinctually inclined towards caring for children (and 40 years of social change doesn't seem to have modified that powerful need very much), all the generous childcare arrangements in the world are unlikely to solve that paradox. Women still suffer disadvantage on the career ladder. And while structural barriers to job success could be further dismantled, that is not a solution in itself.

So, what is the solution? First, as Dorothy Rowe suggests, women need to lower their expectations of themselves. Men have had a lot of practice in this over the past 30 years: women have helped many of us see that we are nothing special. But the truth is that most women are nothing special either. We are all just people, flawed and often unwise, averagely atttactive and averagely clever, trying to get along with one another, stumbling towards goals that are often obscure, unarticulated or contradictory.

My other rather radical suggestion for an increase in happiness among both sexes is that, rather than putting work, friends and children first, both men and women should put one another first. This is one good traditional idea that has been allowed to wane under the weight of other imperatives. Everything else can follow from that.

Striving for individual success is admirable, but if our expectations are unrealistic, or paradoxical, then they are doomed, and unhappiness will surely follow. We shouldn't expect to be happy all the time in any case: unhappiness is a normal part of the human condition, and to expect otherwise is a source of unhappiness itself.

Perhaps, instead of striving for the best of all worlds, we should simply strive to be humble and grateful, men and women alike, for what we have got, most particularly in our coupling and intimacy with one another. It sounds simplistic – but maybe the solution to happiness is simplicity. After all, look where complexity has got us.

Tim Lott's memoir about depression, The Scent of Dried Roses is published by Penguin Modern Classics

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