Raising Happiness


The Kids are Alright

May 21, 2008 | The Main Dish | 2 comments

This week I'd like to take a break from our discussion about forgiveness to look at some exciting news.

Much of the media's reporting about our kids centers on the bad things that are happening to them. "Epidemics" of bullying, school shootings, and youth depression have received significant attention in the past year, not to mention the regular reports of sensational teenage deviance in the nightly news.

My impression is that most people think of teenagers as sad, distant, and often disturbed.

My own research has made me question the assumption that depression is "natural" or typical for teenagers, however, as three-quarters of the teens in my study were, by their own report, quite happy. But other reports have led me to believe that things are getting worse for American kids—that the number struggling with anxiety disorders and depression is growing exponentially. So what's the story? Are teens worse off today than they were 25 or 30 years ago?
We asked Sarah Garrett, our Hornaday Graduate Fellow here at the Greater Good Science Center, to figure this out for us. Below is the first of two postings about happiness in American teens.

–Christine Carter

Are kids less happy now than they were in decades past?

No. American teenagers are as happy as their predecessors were in the '70s and '80s, and appear to be getting even happier.

Every year since 1975, the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center has surveyed roughly 16,000 high school seniors in 133 schools nationwide. These thirty-plus years of data make up a uniquely rich and historical account of American youth in the late 20th century.

I examined teens' responses to the question "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days—would you say you're…very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" The majority of American teens say that they are either "pretty happy" or better—between 82% and 88% from 1976 through 2006. Included in this group is the smaller but substantial proportion of teens who say they are "very happy"—between 17% and 23% of the population during the same time period.

Capping off this thirty-year period is a gentle increase in happiness rates starting in the mid- to late-1990s. This increase is primarily due to decreases in the proportion of youth who say that they are "not too happy" and increases in the proportion who say that they are "very happy."

Data like these provide an important scientific check on what is often portrayed in popular culture and news reporting. We can see that the vast majority of American youth are happy, and that these rates have remained relatively stable since the mid-'70s (when the survey began). If anything, American youth are actually happier in recent years. This is encouraging news about the historical and contemporary experience of youth in the U.S.

But it's important to dig a little deeper. Are the majority of teens from all walks of life "pretty" or "very" happy? Over time, have levels of happiness held steady or increased among all American youth? Or are these felicitous trends limited only to certain subgroups? In my next posting, I'll look a little closer at the data to explore whether there are certain populations of youth that are much more or less happy than others, or who as a group have clearly "gained" or "lost" relative to others over the last 30 years.


More information about the data I used, some references, and my tables are posted on the GoodWiki.

Sarah Garrett is a 2007-2008 Hornaday Graduate Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center.

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This is an interesting topic.  As the mother of a 14 1/2 year old I think he perceives himself as happy, and I would say he’s happy, however, the moodiness of adolescent could make one believe that they aren’t happy.  What about the real physiological changes that overtake them almost overnight?  While I tend to agree that he’s as happy as kids in past decades, I would argue that he and his friends are more anxious at times as well as more aware of the world around them. Thanks as always

Alexandra Davidson | 2:59 pm, May 22, 2008 | Link


A very important topic indeed. Two line of thoughts:

1. how do we guard against the potential of mostly everyone saying that he/she is “happy” just as a “it is expected of me, right?” response?

Almost in line with the standard answer of my 8 years old coming back to school and asserting they learnt “nothing”.

2. can we contrast (or not) this data with suicide rates and “kids on anti-depressants” rates? Will be interesting to view.

Many thanks!

Adi | 10:40 pm, May 22, 2008 | Link

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