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Working Women Survive, But Can They Thrive?

Beth Cabrera was facing a difficult decision. After she received tenure in organizational psychology at Carlos III University in Madrid and had two children, her husband was offered an exciting position at Arizona State University. While Beth and her husband jointly decided to move and start over, Beth found herself at an uncomfortable juncture: Her kids needed extra care and Beth had to manage being a mother and making a significant career transition without a support network of family or close friends. She struggled to find happiness in her new life. Eventually, Beth took a part-time position at ASU. She survived. But this experience caused her to consider: What allows people, and particularly working mothers, to thrive?

This story could have easily sparked a self-help conversation on how women like Beth should “fix” themselves through diet, exercise, therapy, or positive thought. Beth could have blamed herself for not being sufficiently happy at home with the kids. But, as she describes in her book, Beyond Happy, and at a recent event at New America, Beth took a different approach. Through her research at the George Mason University Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, she’s used positive psychology to develop strategies for well-being. Instead of focusing on how to “fix” problems, she studies how and why certain people thrive. How can women (and, for that matter, men) get off the merry-go-round of trying find balance between a busy life at work and chaos at home? How, to use Cabrera’s parlance, can they—we—go “beyond happy” to find something akin to joy? And how can we learn from the women who have managed to do just that?

Having lived in Spain with a robust social network—mainly quality, affordable, and accessible child care and a flexible work environment—Cabrera was well aware of the big-picture policy supports necessary for working parents to thrive. But she didn’t have those in Arizona. According to Cabrera, the issue at hand is therefore this: While we work towards meaningful policy change on paid leave, child care, equal pay, etc., working parents—and disproportionately mothers—need strategies for coping with the multitude of demands in their lives. These strategies are helpful in the absence of robust family policy.

In Being Happy and at the event on the subject, Cabrera shared her tactics. She told her audience to "forget balance, focus on well-being." By trying to find balance, Cabrera argued, we undermine working parents’ confidence by making them strive for "one more thing [they] can't seem to achieve." Perfect balance will forever be unattainable. Well-being, however, is achievable. Dr. Richard J. Davidson’s work on The Emotional Life of Your Brain also shows that people who frequently experience positive emotions (feeling good) and derive meaning from their lives (doing good) thrive. And people who thrive—people who experience positive emotions and have a feeling their life is meaningful—have more energy, self-confidence, creativity, resilience (better coping skills, faster bounce-back), and a greater capability to alter—and improve—their brain chemistry. Those who do the opposite—languishing—risk undermining their own confidence and health. Our thoughts and actions, positive or negative, can rewire our brain.

In practical terms: Feeling good is a matter of being more mindful and spending less time thinking about the past or worrying. Spending more time in the moment allows us to experience more positive feelings. In addition, focusing and noticing what's good and being grateful for it trains our brains to move away from a fight-or-flight response.

To find meaning, Cabrera suggests we live our values, i.e., align behaviors to what's most important to each of us, and be intentional about why we are doing something. Very often, what's most urgent is not what’s most important, which could include a meaningful project, spending time with family, or going to the gym. Meaning can be as simple a matter as doing something kind for someone else.

In the big picture, we need to ensure families’ basic needs are covered. However, after a certain point, money doesn’t contribute to well-being. Instead, feeling good and doing good can allow people to thrive. As individuals, then, we should prioritize our lives such that each of us tries to live our own version of the good life. And as a collective, we should work toward ensuring that all individuals have the opportunity to do so.


Alieza Durana is a senior policy analyst in the Better Life Lab at New America, where she researches and writes about barriers to social and income equality, especially at the intersection of work, gender, and social policy.