Last month a survey about levels of happiness among girls and young women made for disheartening reading. According to the Guardian, the study by Girlguiding found that of the 1,900 young women and girls between the ages of 7-21 surveyed, only 25 percent described themselves as "really happy", with happiness declining as they got older. Those aged 17-21 were found to be the least happy, with 27 percent saying they did not feel happy at all, compared with 11 percent in 2009.
It's not the only study to suggest that unhappiness is on the rise in young women. Mental health issues also appear to be more common among girls, with Go Think Big reporting that a 2017 University of Liverpool survey found that a quarter of 14-year-old girls suffer from depression compared to 9 percent of boys the same age. Meanwhile, mental health issues among female students are on the up with 2.5 percent reporting mental health issues in 2015 compared to 0.5 percent in 2009 in an Institute of Public Policy Research survey. And according to the Office For National Statistics, young people and women feel the loneliest.
To try and get a sense of what might be causing this growing sense of unhappiness, I asked eight young women between the ages of 17 and 25 to tell me about what makes them happy and what could make them happier. There are some common themes of pressure — whether from careers or exams — and social media (although not always in the way you might think), but there is also some useful advice for boosting contentment that is useful at any age. Pippa, 17, reminded me of how important it is to try and stop and smell the roses when you can, and Jenessa, 25, that you can't do everything on your own. Their answers are below.
Getting the balance is key but it's very easy to feel as if I'm skiving by taking time out to be happy.
"I am happy but not all the time. More often than not, I'm very stressed with a lot going on and a lot to think about, so it means I'm physically and mentally drained with not a lot of room to be happy for a long period of time.
"The amount of things that I've got on affects my happiness: people I need to please, deadlines to meet, running two businesses and a Brownie unit, as well as work. [They] take up too much of my time, [so] that I often get caught up in all of those things and forget to give myself the chance to be happy. The news/current affairs also affects [my happiness] but I've had to accept that most of that is out of my control.
"I've found that I'm currently doing less things that I enjoy and more things that 'have' to be done. Getting the balance is key but it's very easy to feel as if I'm skiving by taking time out to be happy. The pressure of life gets very intense very quickly and it's a lot to handle. However, when I am happy it's great — I'm not knackered or grumpy — but it's getting to that point (without guilt) that is difficult. Being able to live at a slower pace and to be happy without feeling guilty or lazy, would make me happier — less pressure from other people to do so many things and to be available (mainly via social media 24/7). I'd like to be able to simply enjoy my time with the people I care about and not have to worry about other commitments. It feels as if we're all expected to do so much but we can't do everything - it's easy to get caught up in such a fast-paced and ridiculous way of life/expectations."
I’ve been far less happy in the past but I attribute that to having to go to the library and work on my own for hours a day.
"I consider myself to be happy. My relationships —friendships and my boyfriend — [are important]. If I am feeling secure in my relationships and am spending time socialising then I generally feel very happy. I don’t necessarily have to leave the house and do something, but just chilling with friends for a couple of hours a day makes a difference.
"I’m not sure what would make me happier. I’ve been far less happy in the past but I attribute that to having to go to the library and work on my own for hours a day, and living in antisocial accommodation where there’s no communal living space. Before that I’d attribute it to going out drinking all the time and not getting enough sleep. I suppose I could say that if I were less stressed I’d be happier (I have exams coming up next week) but really the stress of exams is relatively fleeting — I know that when they’re done, I’ll be pretty happy again."
I’m trying to learn that one person can only do so much at one time.
"Like most millennials I do tend to have my moments where I have to take a reality check on how lucky I am, but on the whole, I’d say yes [I am happy]. I’m in a supportive and stable relationship, I’m physically healthy, I have a roof over my head that I was in a fortunate enough position to part-buy, and I manage to make enough of a living doing the things I enjoy to do. I definitely have my down days, but I’m definitely a lot happier than I used to be.
"I’m a diagnosed high-functioning anxiety and depression sufferer, so that can often affect my happiness. I’m mostly self-employed and a bit of a perfectionist, so my desire to do well at everything can often become a bit of a burden and trigger my mental health issues, especially if I’m worrying about workloads, or money, or if I’m doing ‘enough’ to be all things to all people. It really affects my own happiness to see people I love struggling, or feel like I’m not being as good a friend or family member as I’d like to be, but I’m trying to learn that one person can only do so much at one time."
I often find it is the smallest things that can have the greatest impact on my happiness levels.
"Personally, I consider myself to be a very lucky individual, and I'm very grateful for everything that life has and continues to offer me. I often find it is the smallest things that can have the greatest impact on my happiness levels. I smell the roses every time I walk past a particular garden from school, for the satisfaction of fulfilling the phrase that one must 'stop and smell the roses.' I take my ability to do so as proof that I can still find time to enjoy simply living in my current state.
"Another thing I do is allow myself to visualise the future in a positive light. Both specific events that I have in the diary, and also, for me at the moment, imagining myself happily situated at university having completed all of my current work, and with that gloriously long summer holiday behind me. I would be surprised by the statistic above, but I do feel that there are many girls my age who are really struggling to find pleasure in their daily lives, and who easily slip into periods of depression and anxiety. I could name far more than I would ever wish to among my peers."
Staring at a screen all day really lowers my happiness and mood.
"I would say I’m happy, but not very happy. My levels of happiness change depending on lots of factors. Currently, I would say I’m not my happiest due to work. I don’t enjoy my job at all, I’ve gone from education straight into a full-time office job which I’ve realised isn’t the career I want to do. My job consists of staring at my laptop all day and basic data management. Looking at spreadsheets all the time really affects my happiness and staring at a screen all day really lowers my happiness and mood. I think sometimes we rely on technology so much but it’s not always a good thing. As you work for so much of your life, I definitely would be a lot happier doing a job I love.
"I feel like one of the most common reasons people think women are unhappy is always down to social media. I don’t think this is the case. When I was 15/16 I definitely felt the pressures from Instagram and other people’s lives, however now I think young women’s perspectives are underestimated. I use Instagram as a hobby and it actually adds happiness rather than making it worse. I’ve met so many young women like me through Instagram, but it’s never labelled as a platform for women to build each other up."
I am most happy when I am doing things that help to relax me, such as baking or spending time with friends.
"I do consider myself to be happy although I sometimes feel stressed due to being in my last year of school. I am most happy when I am doing things that help to relax me, such as baking, spending time with friends, having nights in by the fire watching TV, going on days out with my family and going for walks with my dog.
"Getting rid of the constant pressure hanging over me of school work, exams and obtaining the grades needed for university would make me happier."
The process of recovery has made me a happier person.
"I definitely feel like a happy person. I wouldn’t change much about my work or personal life, which feels like a huge privilege! My diagnosed anxiety and depression sometimes make feeling happy impossible. For years, though, I’ve been actively working to improve my mental health through therapy, medication, and positive habits — so overall, the process of recovery has made me a happier person.
"Income levels affect my happiness. Things outside of my control that make me unhappy — like my dad’s cancer, for example — I can accept that I have no influence over. Being self-employed means that I’m always under pressure to be getting client work in just to pay the rent. Freelancing can feel unstable, but I know it doesn’t have to be, so I’m working towards a more reliable income base."
I think your job can either make or break your happiness.
"I would say on a day to day basis I consider myself happy, with the people around me, my relationships and the job I do, however I feel like it is always possible to be happier. I think your job, the money you earn, and where you are at in your life can play a big part in your happiness and this can be affected very easily. For the most part, I would say yes I consider myself happy.
"I think your job can either make or break your happiness as that is what you spend most of your time doing in your life. I would also say the time that you get to spend with your loved ones i.e. friends/family would affect this as you need good people and good relationships around you to keep you feeling positive. Things that would make me happier would be being able to spend more time doing things that I like. Travelling, cooking, sports and doing things that are your hobbies which bring you joy. I find that when you spend time doing these things it can relax you and help you to feel less stressed and therefore enjoy life more."
Responses have been edited for length and clarity