8 messages to teach young women about happiness


Paula Davis-Laack


Photo: Alan Powdrill

Women's happiness levels have been on the decline for the past few decades, so says a 2009 study entitled, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." If that is the case, what are young women and girls learning about what it means to be happy? Who are their happiness role models? It wasn't until I burned out after seven years of practicing law that I gave much thought to my own happiness. If you could give some advice to young women and girls about how to build happiness, what would you say? Here is my list, which is based on my own personal experiences, where my clients get stuck, and the research.

Maxing out isn't healthy. Many young women want to go to a good university, get a good job, find a good relationship, and be good mothers. When leaning in turns into burning out, though, women experience serious health, relationship, and emotional consequences that aren't easily fixed. Rather than focusing on "having it all," let's ask young women what they want and help them define success on their own terms.

Buy more experiences and less stuff. When I was a teenager, I wanted to have the same clothes as my friend's sister - she had all of the name brand stuff and I thought she was so cool. When I graduated from law school and started practicing, it was nice to be able to afford a new handbag here and there. Having stuff isn't bad, but materialism is. Not only does materialism not bring happiness, it's a strong predictor of unhappiness. One study examined the attitudes of 12,000 18-year olds, then measured their life satisfaction at age 37. Those who had expressed materialistic aspirations as young adults were less satisfied with their lives two decades later. My husband and I don't live in a big house and my car is almost 10 years old, and that is by design. Living below our means allowed me to start my own business when my law career ended and it allows us to travel - experiences that have changed my life far more than a new car.

Focus on self-efficacy rather than self-esteem. Self-esteem is the evaluation of your own self worth, while self-efficacy is your ability to feel like you can produce results in your own life. When I first heard psychologist Dr. Karen Reivich talk about the differences between the two, I was convinced that self-efficacy is the more important focus. When young women and girls get an "A" or a trophy for simply showing up, they are robbed of the ability to learn how to adjust and deal with failure. Unfortunately, we've overshot the mark in trying to protect our kids from this evil thing called failure when in reality, failure builds resilience.


Take (good) risks. When you are asked to give a presentation, try out for a team, or do something new, what do you do? Do you shy away or jump in? Would it surprise you to know that when it comes to evaluating ability, men tend to overestimate theirs and women tend to underestimate theirs. Think back to how your 8-year-old self was praised. Dr. Carol Dweck explains that young girls are often praised for being "smart" or "good," while young boys are often praised for "trying hard." As a result, many young girls develop a fixed mindset - the belief that ability is fixed or static. She avoids challenges, tries to look smart, gives up easily, and sees added effort as fruitless. Meanwhile, young boys tend to develop a growth mindset - the belief that ability can be developed. He embraces challenges, persists during setbacks, and believes that with more effort, he can master a task. Not all girls have fixed mindsets and not all boys have growth mindsets, but Dr. Dweck's research certainly suggests that the way boys and girls are praised has consequences later in life.

Don't get stuck in your own faulty thinking. When I speak to students and professionals about my own experiences with burnout, I describe myself as a "people pleasing, perfectionist, achieve-aholic." It's my way of illustrating how the faulty assumptions we make and our deep patterns of thinking undercut happiness and resilience and create a lot of stress in our lives. If you catch yourself thinking any of the following, pay attention to what is driving your belief system, and know that the young women and girls in your life are paying attention to how you manage these beliefs:

* What will people think of me?

* I have to be perfect.

* I have to achieve more.

* I can handle it all on my own.

* I can't take time for myself.

Perfection really does not exist. It took me years to realise how destructive the pursuit of perfection really is. Thinking you have to do things perfectly and/or be perfect is like carrying around a heavy weight on your back, and it absolutely crushes creativity. According to research professor Dr. Brene Brown, "Perfection is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people's expectations, and being criticised keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds".

Vulnerability is good. The less I focused on perfection and the more I focused on being vulnerable, the more opportunities unfolded for me. Vulnerability is what helped me stop my law practice, go back to school, and start a new business working with people and on projects I could never have imagined. Don't get me wrong, I HATE being vulnerable and it absolutely does not come easy to me. It's a daily practice, in fact, but the alternative is a life where I'm not fully "all in," and that's just not acceptable to me anymore.

Avoid happiness traps. Many women (myself included) have bought into one or more of these happiness myths at some point in their lives - I call them the "I'll be happy when's:"

* I'll be happy when I get married or find that great relationship
* I'll be happy when I make more money
* I'll be happy when I have children
* I'll be happy when I lose weight
* I'll be happy when I change jobs/get a new job/get promoted

Our culture spins a very seductive story for young women, making it seem as though they're not worthy or can't be happy unless and until they've achieved these milestones.

These messages will help young women and girls take control of their happiness, resilience, and health. What would you add?


Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a stress and resilience expert and a writer. She has trained thousands of professionals on how to manage their stress and increase their happiness by building a specific set of skills designed to develop personal resilience and prevent burnout. Davis-Laack recently released an e-book called "10 Things Happy People Do Differently." You can visit her website here

For a full list of references and citations please see the original article here.



  • Great article. Thank you Paula for sharing your learnings from your experience of the happiness myths, your deconstruction of the myths and (perhaps most importantly) suggesting a path forward. These experiences can only become part of common wisdom through sharing so thank you.

    Date and time
    January 21, 2014, 9:19AM
    • Excellent article with good points in clear form.

      I'll be passing this on to my daughter and my son.

      Too Funny
      Date and time
      January 21, 2014, 2:09PM
      • My advice isn't just for young girls and women, it is for everyone: don't live your life to other people's expectations, and don't rely on external sources for your happiness.
        Everybody should define success in their own terms.

        I disagree with you about the pursuit of perfection being destructive, but that may just come down to differing perceptions of perfection. I feel that as long as you can accept that:
        - You are not perfect
        - You will most likely never achieve perfection in a lifetime
        - Your pursuit of perfection will encounter plenty of failures along the way

        Then you essentially have the ultimate bar with which to ensure you are constantly looking to better yourself.

        Date and time
        January 21, 2014, 2:24PM
        • I would go further with this:

          *You can be perfectly happy just having a boring old office or manual job. You don't need to be a world famous wanky "wellness coach", sports scientist, or any trendy job of the now to do work which will pay you a liveable wage and allow you to support a family.

          *The standards of beauty don't necessarily need to be rewritten to include you; it is perfectly acceptable to decide that physical attractiveness or conformity is not a priority for you, and the more people who accept this the less emphasis will be placed on looks in the community at large. So long as you are clean and hygienic and dress appropriately for the occasion, this is good enough.

          *It is fine to be totally average and to have average kids. One night you are probably going to feed them peanut butter smeared on a playing card for dinner. They'll be right.

          *"Niceness" is not the be-all-and-end-all and it is a pretty lousy barometer for genuine decency or character. Being bland and inoffensive does not entitle you to a partner, a job or privilege. It is the basic minimum you need to do and be to not get thrown in jail.

          *Chances are you aren't going to be a professional athlete, regardless of gender. Stop pissing away your life at school focussing on elite sport when a) the vast majority of young people who train at an elite level never make it competitively and b) the majority of those who do still earn far too little to live on it alone. Spend more time studying or going to work placement or job training.

          Date and time
          January 21, 2014, 3:30PM
        • @ teacher, that is the most depressing advice I've ever heard. Mediocrity might be your thing, but some of us aim for more. And I'm glad you're being nice enough in society not to get thrown into jail... keep it up.

          Date and time
          January 21, 2014, 7:22PM
        • I agree, Markus. I've been in the legal profession for 24 years and I still love it, as both a solicitor and then a barrister. I haven't burnt out, because I stand up for myself and don't accept other people's views of how I should run my life. I also have a husband who thinks my career is as important as his, a major stumbling block for many professional women.

          It irritates when posters like those below (and our otherwise great Governor-General) say to women (never men), "You can't have it all". You CAN have it all, as much as men or anyone can. You shouldn't be expected to do all the housework/childcare while hubby swans out the door & then you rush off to your job late after dropping off kids. I have a career, a husband and 2 kids. I work my arse off, and have little time to myself after work & family. So does he. I wouldn't give it up for anything. I wonder whether the author's "burnout" was because her artier left more of the load to her? Ir law was not where her interests lay to begin with?

          Date and time
          January 21, 2014, 8:04PM
        • @ Teacher, are you advocating we all accept that we should be no more than average, and never aspire to being a standout superstar in anything ? Just take up a nice, safe course of study that leads into a boring. mediocre profession (teaching, perhaps ?)

          Contrary to your depressing contribution, the saddest thing is NOT someone who has strived but failed; it is someone left wondering if they COULD have achieved their dreams but were too afraid to even try.

          I'd love to hear what your advice would have been to a young JK Rowling ("give it up, dear - do you realise how few authors actually get published ?") or Adam Scott ('the odds of winning a major golf tournament are ridiculous - why don't you study agriculture and become a greens keeper?")

          The truism that "those who can, do - those who can't, teach" appears to apply squarely to you.

          Aussie Expat
          Hong Kong
          Date and time
          January 21, 2014, 9:00PM
        • @ummm - I find nothing wrong with teacher's advice. If you want to aspire to fly high, OK, but don't complain if burnout brings you crashing down. On the other hand if you really can't be bothered chasing excellence and high achievement, don't worry, mediocrity is OK if you're OK with it. By definition most people are mediocre. If you want to be better than mediocre then you should be grateful that not everyone can or wants to, or you'd find it much harder.

          Date and time
          January 22, 2014, 1:58PM
      • As a 60 plus woman who has raised a family and worked professionally for more than 30 years I would say to young women - Don't expect to have it all. You can have many things but not necessarily all at the same time. Modern Western women are blessed with the luxury of being able to choose what is important to each of us individually and not have roles that are imposed on us by other people. Most of the world's women don't have these choices and neither did our grandmothers. To want everything is a pathway to disappointment not happiness.

        Date and time
        January 21, 2014, 2:37PM
        • Thank you Amber for sharing your wisdom with us. What a wonderful, insightful comment. I also loved this article - it has great advice that I will definitely be putting in place.

          Big Cat
          Date and time
          January 21, 2014, 3:39PM

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