For all the handwringing about millennial unhappiness, new research suggests a very different narrative: Today's under-30 set is slightly happier than any previous generation of young adults -- and happier than mature adults overall, according to a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Research from San Diego State University analyzed more than 30 years of data and found the conventional idea that happiness grows as we age may no longer necessarily be true. The study, which examined happiness trends of nearly 1.3 million Americans, found that older adults are in fact less satisfied than they used to be.
The study looked at people from ages 13 to 96 who all ranked if they were "very happy," "pretty happy" or "not too happy." The results showed that adults over 30 are no longer happier than the younger demographic, as previous research has shown.
The reason for the happiness decline may lie in expectations, the researchers explained in The Atlantic. When we're younger, we have high hopes for our future realities. However, as we mature, we may slowly realize that we didn't necessarily achieve what we set out to do, whether that means landing a dream job, having a happy marriage or whatever life circumstance we pictured for ourselves.
"With expectations so high, less happiness in adulthood may be the inevitable result," wrote Jean Twenge, the study's lead researcher and author of Generation Me. "Big dreams feel great when you're an adolescent or a young adult just starting out. But somewhere around their late 20s, most people begin to realize reality isn't going to match up."
Data showed that 30 percent of young adults (those in the 18-29 age range) said they were "very happy" in the 2010s, slightly increasing from 28 percent in the 1970s. Teens are also happier now than they were in previous decades. Approximately 19 percent of adolescents said they were "very happy" in the 1970s, whereas 23 percent reported feeling the same in the 2010s.
“Individualism feels good when you're a young adult -- it's a world of endless possibilities and freedom.”
Twenge theorizes that a greater sense of individualism may be a factor in why this generation of young people are slightly happier than their predecessors. Society has certainly evolved when it comes to self-expression; conformity is no longer a mainstream expectation. Individuality brings a sense of happiness to young people but it's less of a factor as we grow older.
"Individualism feels good when you're a young adult -- it's a world of endless possibilities and freedom," Twenge told The Huffington Post in an email. "We live in a very youth-focused culture. Everything that's cool is associated with young people. A few decades ago, there was status in being an older person with a job and children. Now that's seen as lame -- the ideal is to be young and free forever."
That being said, there's no scientific way to definitively conclude why young adults' happiness is flourishing compared to previous years. There doesn't seem to be a generational divide, but rather a cultural shift.
"We were able to control for generation in our statistical analyses, and found that the trends are not caused by any one happy or unhappy generation cycling in and out of these age groups," Twenge said. "As far as we can tell, the different trends in happiness by age group apply across the generations."
While the new data provides some interesting insight into how happiness is shaped by our modern-day society, all hope for maintaining (or achieving) joy isn't lost as we get older. The fact still remains that we're in control of our own happiness. Conscious choices like spending money on experiences, keeping a gratitude journal and even playing with a pet all increase happiness and they're ageless opportunities. And that's something to really be happy about.
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