05/20/2015 03:06 pm ET Updated May 20, 2016

Why Are So Many High Achieving Girls Unhappy?

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Happiness is the ultimate currency -- more than wealth, achievements or material possessions -- and we should raise our children, structure our schools and live our lives in a way that maximizes it. That's the message of the book I just finished, Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, as part of research for my new book on parenting girls ages 16-24.

I can't say I ever gave much thought to happiness. I come from a family where happiness was seen as an "extra," a kind of frill to life -- nice to have, but certainly not necessary and by no means paramount. Work was king. Suffering meant you were working hard. It made you worthy.

It's no coincidence that the most popular class at Harvard was about something many hard-driving students likely lived without: happiness. Ben-Shahar taught it. All around him at Harvard and in the mirror, he saw the archetype of the "rat racer," the achievement-driven soul who delayed his own happiness in order to reach some future destination (graduation, a good job, a signing bonus, etc.).

I am a recovering rat racer. That's why I'm writing this next book.

All around me, I see girls forced to become rat racers in the College Application Industrial Complex, the subculture where students must craft themselves into the perfect specimens for college admission and often lose their authenticity, love of learning and sense of self in the process.

According to Ben-Shahar, the rat racer thinks achieving goals makes her happy, and so justifies her suffering (and it's usually significant: think sleeplessness, stress, Adderall) with this belief. Then, when she survives exam period (or the all-nighter, or the SAT prep), she mistakes relief for happiness.

The rat racer experiences very little pleasure or meaning in her everyday life, so focused is she on the destination. But when purpose is not self-generated -- when you are working day and night for an achievement (college admission) that someone has designated for you, and which lies far off in the future -- a win that you are perhaps more afraid not to get than you may actually genuinely want -- true motivation plummets. Students feel empty. To be truly motivated, Ben Shahar writes, "[w]e need a more specific and tangible sense that we are doing something meaningful next week, tomorrow, later today."

He continues:

Happiness is achieved when we find the right balance of meaning (or purpose) and enjoyment of our tasks, and when we are engaged in an activity that has both present and future benefit. Students experience an internal sense of potential when they do what challenges them, performing activities "that use them fully and well."

The state of "flow," defined as peak experience and peak performance, can't be achieved without some combination of pleasure and challenge. In other words, in order to be truly happy, you have to struggle and also be engaged in what you're doing.

But the College Application Industrial Complex doesn't make room for struggle. It wants perfection. Parents, of course, have picked up on this, and have stepped in to ensure that children maintain spotless resumes. But struggle motivates human beings to accomplish, connecting them with their sense of purpose, passion for the task and drive to succeed. In fact, Ben Shahar concludes, "the process of striving for goals is more important than having them."

In a summary of research on goals and happiness, one scholar wrote, "People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on (a) pursuit of goals involving growth, connection and contribution rather than goals involving wealth, beauty and popularity, and (b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them, rather than goals they feel pressured to pursue." When we focus on the externals, we're more likely to experience distress, depression and anxiety. The internal goals give us more meaning.

As I interview girls living in the CAIC and the undergraduates who have just left it, I am struck by how the very terms of their lives run opposite to everything we know about happiness.

Many of these girls:

  • Are motivated by external goals over internal goals. Developing a sense of purpose or meaning is replaced by the relentless pursuit of external rewards.
  • Delay their happiness in the service of obtaining future pleasure (college admission).
  • Disregard the journey (learning from failures, exploration, curiosity) in favor of fixation on the end result (college admission or a good job out of school).
  • Avoid the challenge that can lead to the peak experience of "flow" in order to avoid failure.
  • Experience their strengths and skills being engaged ONLY if they happen to fulfill the requirements of the Complex. If they possess unusual interests that don't meet the Complex's criteria for the definition of success and college admission, these interests are ignored and often atrophy.
  • Experience a sense of being loved not for their intrinsic selves, but for their accomplishments. They are not encouraged to follow their passions, regardless of prestige or success.
In the last five years, we've become besotted with character strengths like grit, growth mindset and optimism (some call these non-cognitive skills). Ben Shahar's book is 10 years old, but it's essentially an argument to designate happiness, and its pursuit, another non-cognitive skill. Happiness, he's saying, will help you stick with a task because you experience pleasure doing it (grit), better tolerate failure because you have a self-generated purpose (growth mindset), and help you look at the bright side because you're so motivated to succeed (optimism).

Yet, we still discount happiness as a worthwhile pursuit. We think being happy means we stop trying. We conflate happiness with laziness or complacency. In fact, many of us feel unworthy of happiness -- especially girls. Many believe they are not enough as they are, that they must be thinner, smarter, sexier. But, Ben-Shahar concludes, "[y]ou have to believe you're worthy to believe you deserve to be happy."

Happiness doesn't just happen. It must be pursued. And if the pursuit of the "ultimate currency" of happiness helps us choose occupations that confer present and future benefit and these choices in turn motivate us to succeed, this strikes me as perhaps the most powerful non-cognitive skill of all.