It’s a good time to be an American teenager — but not so much an American adult.
Happiness levels are on the rise in adolescents, new research finds, but people older than 30 are becoming less happy over time. Though people used to report greater happiness with age, that correlation vanished after 2010, said study researcher Jean Twenge, a psychologist at the University of California at San Diego.
“My conclusion is that our current culture is giving teens what they need, but not mature adults what they need,” Twenge said.
Twenge became interested in studying changes in happiness after seeing several conflicting papers on the topic. She and her co-authors analyzed data from several nationally representative samples of 1.32 million Americans who participated in either the General Social Survey, a study of adults; or the Monitoring the Future study, which includes teens.
Both studies include questions about happiness. (Monitoring the Future also features questions about life satisfaction, or how people feel about their lives as a whole.) Very quickly, Twenge said, a pattern emerged: The eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders of today are happier than the eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders of previous decades. Meanwhile, adults have been getting steadily unhappier since the 1970s.
A closer look at the adult data found that 18-to-29-year-olds have fairly stable happiness rates and that the real decline occurs after age 30. “In that group of folks, happiness has declined, particularly since 2000,” Twenge said.
Traditionally, researchers have found that people get happier as they age, up to around 65. There is some debate about the trend, but it has always been fairly consistent, Twenge said. Since 2010, though, mature adults have reported less happiness than young people have, reversing old notions of how happiness changes across the life span.
There are two possible explanations for the change. One could be that there’s a particularly gloomy generation moving through life, decreasing the happiness of each age group as they pass through it. But this doesn’t account for the new study results, Twenge said.
The second explanation is that some sort of cultural shift is affecting everyone at the same time. Regardless of whether you’re a baby boomer, a Gen Xer or even a millennial, young people are getting happier, and older people less so.
Those changes are likely to be noticeable in day-to-day life. The influence of this time-period trend is similar to the size of happiness changes from being married vs. single, feeling healthy vs. not, having children vs. not or spending time volunteering vs. not, Twenge and her colleagues reported.
Figuring out why happiness is trending upward for teens and downward for adults is tougher than simply seeing the pattern. There’s no way to conduct unbiased experiments on the effects of being born at one time or another, so scientists have to rely on correlations.
Some correlations may hold hints, though.
The clearest trend was that as the marriage rate declined (more people than ever have never been married), so did adult happiness. Rising income inequality also tracked with the decline in happiness among older adults.
Meanwhile, high school students have reported higher expectations for their future educational attainment and job titles — about twice as high as seen in the 1970s, Twenge said, even though that actual achievement is basically unchanged since then.
“Expectations have grown, while reality has stayed about the same,” she said.
High expectations may make teens feel good, she said, but when those expectations hit against reality in adulthood, the resulting disappointment might account for the evaporation of happiness.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may reveal one factor at play. That research showed that while death rates have declined for all other age groups, white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 saw a reversal of progress: Their death rates ticked upward each year between 1999 and 2013. The cause of this increase was a spike in suicide, chronic liver disease, and drug and alcohol overdose.
“It was basically death due to mental health problems,” Twenge said, a finding that “maps pretty well” onto her research on a decline in happiness in older age.