How does age affect your happiness?

Many psychologists have explored questions like whether the midlife crisis is real and if our brains shift toward positivity as we age. This year’s World Happiness Report weighs in with data from nearly 150 countries around the world, looking at real-time trends in how happiness has changed in recent years. And it paints a somewhat bleak picture for young people in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, unlike other areas of the world.

Where are people happiest?

The World Happiness Report draws from the annual Gallup World Poll, which surveys around 1,000 people per country. The happiest countries are ranked according to residents’ average life satisfaction: how they would evaluate their life as a whole on a scale of 0–10, from the worst possible to the best possible. This year, the United States dropped from #15 to #23, just below the U.K. (#20) and the United Arab Emirates (#22).

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The expected trajectory of happiness across life, at least according to Western research, is a “U shape”—we’re happiest when young, experience a midlife dip that coincides with parenting and career stress, and then tend to rebound.

In fact, that was what happiness looked like globally back in 2006–2010. At that time, people ages 45 to 59 were the least happy, followed by ages 30 to 44, those over 60, and finally the under 30s.

Figure 2.4: Happiness at different ages, 2021-2023 Figure 2.4: Happiness at different ages, 2021-2023 © World Happiness Report 2024

But in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand today, that pattern looks completely different. Young people ages 15–24 are actually less happy than their older counterparts (ages 60+). While the U.S. ranks #23 overall in happiness, ranking countries by the happiness of their young people rockets the U.S. down to #62. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the #10 happiest country for people 60 and older.

Elsewhere in the world, the young tend to be happier than the old. But in the past 15 or so years, young people’s happiness “has fallen sharply” in North America, the report says—while at the same time young people around the world were generally getting happier. What’s going on?

How the young are struggling

For one thing, young people in these countries seem to be struggling emotionally. Globally, young people are more likely to experience laughter, enjoyment, and interest on a daily basis than the old, but that’s not the case in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Young people in these countries also feel more frequent worry, sadness, and anger than their older counterparts, which isn’t common around the world (with the exception of Western Europe, where the young people in Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, and the U.K. are also faring worse). United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as a group represent the only region where negative emotions increased more for the young than the old in the past 15 or so years.

Today, young people (especially in the U.S. and Canada) have a less positive view of where they live than people over 60. They “reported less freedom to make life choices, lower satisfaction with their living conditions . . . as well as lower confidence in the government and higher perceptions of corruption,” explains Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University, one of the coauthors of the report.

Millennials and Gen Z in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand also feel lonelier and less supported by friends and family compared to Boomers and older generations.

At the same time, all age groups in these countries saw a decline in happiness over the past 15 or so years, suggesting this isn’t just a problem for the young and could, perhaps, be caused by changes that are hitting the young harder than others.

Could helping lead to well-being?

Admittedly, this year’s report raises more questions than answers. But maybe one of the answers lies in an activity that young people are already turning to: helping others.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge in helping, donating, and volunteering across all generations and in every region around the globe. At a time of crisis, we seem to have survived by leaning on each other more.

For Millennials and Gen Z, this boost in caring was even stronger. Why? We don’t know for sure, but “one possibility is that Millennials/Gen Z respondents are spending more time amidst others or in their communities, which provides both more opportunity to see the needs and provide assistance to others,” says Aknin.

Another possibility could be that amid their struggle, they are drawn to look outward and support others as a way to, tangentially, help themselves. Even if their lives may be less “happy,” as the World Happiness Report defines it, they may be finding meaning and purpose in seeking out the social bonds that we all need these days.

Globe image by Vectorportal.comCC BY

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