If life seems unhappier for you than it was for your parents at the same age, that might not just be a generational misunderstanding. Disturbing new evidence shows that the happiness of American adults is dropping over time, though it's not entirely clear why. Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist from San Diego State University, led a research team that discovered that adults over age 30 are no longer happier than those aged between 18 and 29. The change happened around 2010, before which adults over 30 consistently enjoyed a happiness boost as compared to those under 30 (since at least the 1970s).
I've followed Dr. Twenge for years — she has high-quality, fascinating work under her belt on the narcissism of Millennials and the somewhat overblown hype regarding the age-related decline of female fertility. So I'm inclined to take her new work on reduced adult happiness seriously, and that's very bad news indeed. It's no longer necessarily true that we can tell young adults (who are understandably having a hard time adjusting to adulthood) that the happiest days of their lives are really ahead of them. Instead, things are becoming more and more downhill, which is obviously depressing.
To its credit, this new drop in happiness is gender egalitarian, at least. Twenge's study shows that happiness levels are depressed as compared to the past in both men and women. This suggests that perhaps women were the canary in the coal mine, slightly more sensitive to the factors that are threatening adult happiness than men, but that men are not immune and are not enjoying higher levels of happiness necessarily at women's expense.
So now that we're all in this happiness slump together, we must figure out its causes. Though of course people will vary and the sources of potential unhappiness are many, I've got some ideas. Knowledge is power too, so if you're afraid of becoming part of the increasingly-sad-adults statistic, look to these areas of your life first.
Your expectations were unrealistic
As it turns out, being raised with a ton of self-esteem before you've really achieved anything is kind of dangerous. It makes you feel good while you're quite young, but it creates inflated expectations for adulthood that are unlikely to pan out. Did you think you were going to literally change the world when you grew up, and be rich and beautiful doing it? It's hard to maintain the illusion that that will still happen when you're the best part of a decade out of college and still working as a barista in your hometown.
Your family is falling apart
Most Americans don't care about living near their families, so unless they're forced back home for economic reasons it's easy to end up very far flung indeed. It seems cool to strike out on your own in your 20s, but by the time you're in your 30s your parents are getting older and you may want to re-establish the relationship as adults. Both having kids and not having kids can increase your desire to stay in touch with your family of origin, though in slightly different ways. Long-distance caregivers of aging parents feel plenty of the stress but little of the satisfaction of helping out.
Your love life is unstable
If you haven't heard that Tinder is ruining dating and hookup culture is the new normal, you must be living under a rock. The divorce epidemic may be over, but even the most marriage-minded among us are running up against the constraints of demographics and the paradox of choice with too many potential partners on the table to choose just one. Oh, and we found out that waiting too long to marry, past age 32, also increases your risks of a split. Cohabitation is notoriously unstable, and only some people have the right personality for enjoying being single. Have fun out there!
Your social life is unstable, too
Living in one place for your whole life and participating in institutions like church and homeownership can give you a jump start on a stable adult social experience, but these are on the decline. Breaking up with friends when you break up with a partner is common too. Social media sites are great at fostering "loose ties," but it's hard to make and keep close friends as an adult. Millennials have plenty of Facebook friends but few "IRL" friends, and online friend dating is even harder than online romantic dating (trust me, I tried it too).
Your finances are a mess
Surely the recession hasn't helped anything. Between hefty student loans and difficulties finding a desired and well-paying job, you might be less happy than your parents and grandparents were at the same age because you're broke. This may not have been so bad with the company of friends, family, and a partner, but those are all likely to be in a suboptimal state too.
Your values are messed up
As Dr. Twenge pointedly puts it, "As cultural values change, the happiest stage of life seems to change along with them." American values (apparently and arguably) have shifted away from the parochial defaults of family and neighborhood and towards the more cosmopolitan ones of higher education, fancy careers, and material success — largely for their own sake. Becoming a valuable member of the community and one's family took time, but people used to enjoy the hard-won satisfactions it brought in their middle age (as evidenced by the happiness stats of yore). Now, the happiness seems to lie mostly in imagining the future as young adults — not in actually getting there as older ones, if you ever even do. Oops.
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