Until recently, research converged on the latter: Older people are happier, with happiness peaking when people reach their 60s and 70s. Maturity leads to more contentment and a greater appreciation of what really matters in life, such as spending time with loved ones and helping others.
In the last five years, however, the once-reliable correlation between age and happiness vanished. Older adults are no longer happier than young adults. Teens and young adults were happier in the 2010s than they were in previous decades, but adults over age 30 were less happy recently (based on analyses of surveys of 1.3 million Americans ages 13 to 96 between 1972 and 2014 that Ryne Sherman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and I just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science). The change wasn’t due to generations cycling in and out of these age groups — it was a true cultural shift affecting everyone.
Why has this happened? A prime suspect is our modern belief system that everyone should follow their dreams. New media makes fame seem like just one viral video away. Reality shows lift ordinary people from obscurity and into the limelight. Nearly 60 percent of high school students — twice as many as in the 1970s — expect to earn a graduate or professional degree, even though the number who actually will has remained stuck at 10 percent. Seventy-eight percent of college students believe that their drive to achieve is above average. Yet they study fewer hours than previous generations, and their SAT scores are lower. As other research has shown, positive thinking doesn’t automatically produce success.
With expectations so high, less happiness is the inevitable result. Many of the Millennials (born approximately 1980-1994) I interviewed for the new edition of my book Generation Me were angry. No one told us it was going to be this hard, they said.
This rigged game is also exacerbated by income inequality: You either make it or you don’t, and those who make it are taking an increasingly large share as the average American gets nowhere. Adolescents and young adults still think they can make it, but most adults over 30 realize they won’t. Sure enough, Shige Oishi, Selin Kesebir, and Ed Diener found that adults’ happiness was lower when income inequality was higher.
Deflated expectations may even lead to violence. Sociologist Adam Lankford contends that the United States suffers from an extraordinarily high rate of mass shootings partially due to our “American Dream” culture of individualistic fame-seeking. When these unrealistic expectations cannot be met, some retaliate by seeking fame and attention through violence. Three days after Lankford presented his theory at the American Sociological Association conference in August, a failed news station employee murdered a reporter and cameraman during a live TV shot, and then took the additional horrifying step of posting a video of the killings on social media.
Part of the problem lies in the shifting definition of the American Dream. Not long ago, achieving the American Dream meant getting a steady job, having a family, and owning a house. It’s now morphed into a flight of fancy involving instant fame, extreme wealth, and the adoration of millions. Even when it stays a little more realistic, the American Dream is now more likely to involve a McMansion than a starter home, and more likely to emphasize material success than family life. College students’ desire to become “very well-off financially” is significantly higher than in the 1970s and reached an all-time high of 82 percent in 2014. However, the importance of raising a family slid since 2003, with more students now valuing wealth than family.
The pursuit of wealth can be an invigorating way to spend one’s 20s. However, this goal has two problems. First, most people won’t be able to achieve it. Second, valuing wealth won’t make them happy. Studies consistently find that people who value money, fame, and image are less happy than those who value community and affiliation with others.
Yet focusing on relationships with others is not as easy as it used to be, either. As Robert Putnam documented in his book Bowling Alone, Americans are now less likely to know their neighbors or join community groups. Personal relationships have fared no better: The marriage rate is at an all-time low, martial satisfaction has declined, and the majority of first children are now born to unmarried mothers. Modern life provides less of the community interaction and fewer of the stable personal relationships that people — need for happiness. But it provides plenty of the exciting, wide-ranging, and fleeting encounters favored by young people. It’s easy to swipe through Tinder, but harder to establish a stable, emotionally close adult relationship.
The technology-driven, highly individualistic, never-stop-dreaming culture of recent years provides a sweet nectar of constant possibility and boundless expectations for those young enough to enjoy it. For Americans over 30, it has instead become a disappointing, frustrating, and often lonely existence in a more circumscribed reality. Being an established, mature, and respectable adult was once a goal young people strived for. Now, we wish we could dream forever.