WHO’s happier?

Last year the World Health Organization released a study of the health and happiness of European adolescents. You can find the study entitled Growing Up Unequal by clicking this link.

In essence, the report found that boys reported that they had greater life satisfaction than did girls, but noted that boys were more likely to be involved in fights and to suffer physical injury. Boys were also more likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, but the report indicated that girls’ use of these substances was increasing as girls began to mimic boys’ behavior

What do you think? Is your son happier than girls his age? Personally, I don’t think that boys are happier; I think that the problem is a difference in brain maturation. Even if the experts disagree on the effects of cognitive gender differences, all agree that there is a large difference in the rate of maturation of the prefrontal lobe – with girls completing maturation on average several years before boys. Remember, that’s the part of the brain that helps us make reasoned decisions and control our impulses. There is, however, little evidence to indicate when that part of the brain begins to mature, because it has been maturing all along, but the agreement is that there is a difference in the rate of maturation. One indication of this occurs when we switch from reacting to events in our lives with the amygdala and start using our prefrontal lobes.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The amygdala is a small portion of the brain approximately at the intersection of lines drawn through your ears and through your eyes to the back of your head. That portion of the brain is involved when we experience strong emotions and it develops a bit faster from birth in boys. Whether or not that can explain young boys’ boisterous behavior is not something we can probably ever know, but it may give them “permission” to be noisy and very active. Certainly, there are boys who are quiet and calm and others who seem unable to control themselves and that difference is probably due to the influence of the amygdala together with societal expectations.

At some point during early adolescence, girls begin to respond to emotional situations with their prefrontal lobes while boys are still responding from their amygdala. When girls start asking – “Why did she say that?” instead of “That is a mean thing to say,” you know they are now responding more with their prefrontal lobes because they are thinking about the effect of the behavior.

So part of the problem with happiness in adolescents is that the boys are just responding to emotions whereas girls have begun to think about how they feel and how their feelings affect them. Combine that approach with the likelihood that girls ruminate (think over and over) and you can understand how girls will begin to report that they are less happy.

What those of us who are parents of boys know is that when boys think about what happens to them, they also are unhappy and deeply so. If that were not true, there would not be a higher suicide rate among males and that statistic is true worldwide. The point is that if you ask a boy if he is satisfied with his life, if he is not actually thinking about his troubles at the time, he is likely to tell you his life is fine. Because of their ruminative habits, girls may be thinking more often about their troubles and that certainly will make them believe that they are miserable.

My point here is that just because a well-respected study comes out and says that boys are more satisfied with their lives is not proof that every boy is. Boys are more likely to fight with others and to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and yet the study did not suggest that such behavior might indicate some unhappiness on the part of boys. Another factor is that boys are reluctant to share their emotions with just anyone. Yes, the study was anonymous, but boys are not always honest with themselves much less someone else.

I’m not trying to make a case for boys being unhappy, but I am trying to point out that just because boys may be reluctant to share their emotions with others, that does not mean that those emotions do not exist. Boys are very concerned with what their male peers think, with one facet of this being that boys may be unwilling to state their true feelings, believing that their friends are satisfied with their lives. Once you get boys sharing their feelings, you might be surprised at what is going on inside. The movie Stand By Me has a great scene where two of the younger boys share what their lives are like and then one begins to cry. He makes a disparaging statement about crying and the other boy comforts him. That is a very honest scene because that sort of conversation does happen between males of all ages, but they are not likely to share that knowledge.

Make sure that your son knows that you have good days and bad ones and that we all are dissatisfied with our lives every now and then. Point out that the important point is to keep trying and not to expect success all the time. Success and a happy life come, if we are lucky, after we strive and fail. As Charlie Brown replies to Lucy in the classic Peanuts panel below, “Life does have its ups and downs, you know.”

peanuts cartoon panel
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