Here’s a question with a less-than-straightforward answer: Are Americans happier, or less happy, than they used to be?
Based on the usual causes of well-being, a case could be made for either. Increases in median family income, education, and leisure time suggest that happiness should rise. However, social relationships are now weaker and income inequality has risen, suggesting happiness might decline.
To examine long-term trends in happiness in the U.S., my colleagues and I merged reams of survey data from 1972 to 2014, from four nationally representative samples totaling 1.3 million Americans. All were between the ages of 13 and 96, and all were asked the same standard question on general happiness: “Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”
Our findings, published on Thursday in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, were startling, revealing a pattern that doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom on age and happiness. Past research has found that people grow steadily happier as they age from adolescence to older adulthood, with happiness peaking when people reach their 60s and 70s; the moodiness of youth subsides, and maturity brings more contentment. But our analysis found that this was no longer true: In the last five years, the once-reliable correlation between age and happiness among adults has vanished. Adults 30 and over are less happy than they used to be, while, teens and young adults are happier; in fact, adults over 30 are no longer happier than their younger counterparts. It seems that mature adults’ happiness has waned, while young people’s happiness has flourished.