Study: Young people happier than in the past, but 'mature adults' sadder

Unmet, high expectations may be the root cause

Young adults now report higher levels of happiness than those over 30, according to a new report in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Prior research, she says, found that as people grew older, they also grew happier—peaking in their 60s and 70s. Yet that trend changed in the last five years. Lead author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, explains the findings in The Atlantic.

For the report, Twenge and her team analyzed survey data from four nationally representative samples taken from 1972 to 2014, totaling 1.3 million respondents ages 13 to 96. Each person was asked to describe their general happiness as "very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy."

They found that while teens and young adults are happier than in previous decades, adults older than 30 are now less happy than their younger counterparts.

"It seems that mature adults' happiness has waned, while young people's happiness has flourished," Twenge writes.

She attributes this to a shift in American expectations. A full 64% of high school students today say they expect they will be a manager or professional by the time they are 30, compared with 48% who said the same in 1976. However, the rate of people actually earning those positions has remained at about 18%.

"Somewhere around their late 20s, most people begin to realize reality isn't going to match up," Twenge writes.

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Possibly exacerbating this disillusionment is the rise of individualism, she says. U.S. culture places more emphasis on the individual today, which works for young people still working on finding themselves but "fails to provide the ingredients for happiness" for adults moving into later life stages, Twenge says.

Research shows that youth are more likely to seek out things that will benefit them later in life and take risks, while older adults focus on existing relationships and things they can enjoy now.

"The prevalence of digital technology and the greater freedom of individualism both encourage more information-seeking, novelty, and risk-taking, but provided fewer opportunities for emotionally close, long-term relationships," Twenge writes (Twenge, The Atlantic, 11/5). 

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