Study: Each Generation Is Happier Than the Last

Well-being improves over lifetimes and across generations

Associated Press

You'll be happier in the future than you are now, a new study in the journal Psychological Science found, but your overall well-being also depends on when you were born, and what you've lived through.

"Well-being" is a pretty nebulous measure, but it definitely sounds like something you would want to strive for. Here, it takes into account individuals' current symptoms of depression, along with reflections on how they've lived: "I enjoyed life," "I felt I was just as good as other people," "I felt hopeful about the future," and "I was happy."

And well-being, looked at in several thousand adults who had been followed and assessed repeatedly over an average of 30 years of life, appeared to reliably decline with age. Older adults, on the whole, were faring worse than younger generations.

Usually, in studies like this, researchers point out everything they controlled for, such as gender, ethnicity, economic status, level of education, and health status, to show how none of these factors affected the trends that they found. And the same held true here. But, when they controlled for the year in which their subjects were born, the results completely changed.

Specifically, the slope of declining well-being with age reversed direction: Well-being actually improved with age. The confused occurred because the two main samples that this research drew upon were collected at different times, so an 80-year-old in one, for example, was born in a different year from an 80-year-old in another.  But adults who shared a birth cohort, or as we tend to think of it, belonged to the same generation, tended to start out at similar baselines of well-being. 

People born at the turn of the 20th century, between 1885 and 1925, started out lowest on the well-being scale. Each successive generation, stretching across almost a century to people born in 1980, had a slightly more positive outlook.

So life satisfaction increases with life lived, but some of us start out more satisfied than others. The study's authors call it "the legacy of economic hard times": The lasting effects of having through the Great Depression, they posit, may have contributed to the lower well-being of their older cohort. Even those who ended up successful despite the harshness of the times -- such as by achieving high levels of education -- were nonetheless "stunted." Advances in medicine and the loosening of social norms may also have played a role in the intergenerational discrepancies.

This also means that while older adults appear, as a whole, to be the least happy generation, right now they're happier than they've ever been. Here's to them making the most of it.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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