Twenty years ago, life satisfaction surveys of those 18 and older showed the highest readings among America’s youngest and oldest adults, with those in between struggling with work, families and other life concerns average
Now, a Harvard-led study examining a dozen measures of well-being shows that younger adults have the lowest scores of any age group.
Tyler VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences and lead author of the study published in JAMA Psychiatrysaid the results reflect not only a long-standing mental health crisis among younger Americans that predates and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but a broader crisis in which they perceive not only their mental health but also physical, social connection and other measures. of flourishing as worse than other age groups.
VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said this should get the attention of policymakers.
Q&A: Tyler VanderWeele
GAZETTE: Clearly they are related, but how is wellness different from mental health?
VANDERWEELE: Obviously, mental health is important. It is important to address issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, suicide for youth and adults. That said, I think we’ve neglected broader issues of well-being or flourishing which I understand in very holistic terms as living in a state where all aspects of life are good.
This takes into account mental health, physical health and, more broadly, happiness, having a sense of meaning and purpose, trying to be a good person, social relationships, and the financial and material conditions that support these things that they care about people. .
GAZETTE: The report compares the results of a survey earlier this year with a similar study in 2000. What did that survey show about our state of well-being 22 years ago?
VANDERWEELE: A number of studies had found that those who were younger and those who were older, if you just looked at happiness and life satisfaction, tended to be better off than those in the middle. The speculation was that the middle-aged were struggling more, dealing with young children, perhaps also aging parents.
Maybe they were at a point in their career where they were trying to get ahead, possibly even having a midlife crisis. For those who were younger, statistics in recent decades suggested they were happier, perhaps with a sense of greater opportunity, fewer responsibilities, more opportunities for social connection.
What was perhaps surprising in previous surveys was that those who were older were also doing better than the middle-aged. Although health problems often arise with age, people were still happier. Perhaps they felt that life’s struggles were resolved, or they had more time to connect socially.
There is also some evidence of greater emotional regulation as one ages, more gratitude for what has happened. These are averages, obviously, which mask a lot of variability, but this curve was observed fairly consistently across countries.
GAZETTE: What did you find in your most recent survey?
VANDERWEELE: We started seeing it in January 2020, right before the pandemic. But January 2022 was the first time it became absolutely clear: In every dimension of well-being we looked at—happiness, health, meaning, character, relationships, financial stability—every one increased strictly with age. Those aged between 18 and 25 felt they were worse off in all these dimensions. It was quite shocking, quite disturbing.
GAZETTE: One thing that stood out to me was that it was true even for physical health. You would think this would be a mess for the youngsters. How do we explain it?
VANDERWEELE: It’s powerful. Young people perceive themselves as not being physically healthy. The context of January 2022 must be taken into account: we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; Omicron has once again made social and community interactions very difficult shortly after there was hope that things would open up.
So part of it may be a sense of physical threat from the pandemic that affects young people more than others. Some may be a sense that they are not engaging in the health behaviors that young people believe they should be.
Perhaps drug and alcohol use increased. It may be a discrepancy between experience and expectations.
As a 24-year-old, maybe this is how I think I should feel physically, and I’m just not there. So it’s likely that all of these things come into play, but it’s surprising, in some ways shocking, that the self-reported physical health of this group was so low.
GAZETTE: Loneliness was another area mentioned in the study.
VANDERWEELE: Social connectedness was reported to be the lowest in this group. Given the timing, it’s probably not that surprising. There was previous evidence that young adults were increasingly lonely, and I think that was really accentuated by the pandemic.
What we saw in the pandemic was that, on average, in the United States the sense of social connectedness went down a little and loneliness went up a little, although not as much as might have been predicted. Many people invested more in their families and close friends, connecting via Zoom or other means with family members. But the decline was substantial among young people.
Older people had established relationships and established communities that they could draw on, but young people at this stage of life were trying to build those relationships and trying to join those communities, and the opportunities to do that were much more limited.
GAZETTA: Do we have any sense of the causes? Social networks have been described as evil. The economy?
VANDERWEELE: The data we are currently working with is purely descriptive. It does not allow us to get to the causes. But by gathering evidence from other studies, one can begin to understand what may be going on.
Part of it is financial and economic. The job prospects for young people, in terms of the advancement that was predictable and expected 40 or 50 years ago, are simply not there to the same degree. Education debt has been weighing heavily on young people. Housing costs in cities are skyrocketing, while studies suggest the majority of Gen Z want to own a home, but believe it’s completely out of reach.
I think social media has contributed to the decline of well-being. Previous studies indicate that, on average, the effects on well-being and mental health are negative, especially in those with high use. And high use is dramatically more common with young adults than others.
Furthermore, study after study, ours and others, have indicated that family life and participation in religious communities contribute to these aspects of flourishing. And participation in both has dropped substantially.
I think political polarization has also played a role in this. Many people think, “How can I live in a country like this, where half the people are terrible?” In addition, the last five years have been quite a turbulent time: the pandemic, Russia and Ukraine, concerns about climate change.
We all face this, but older people have had longer periods of relative stability than those in their 20s. The world probably seems a more threatening place.
GAZETTE: Any hints on a path forward?
VANDERWEELE: Again, not from the survey responses themselves, but perhaps from other studies that we’ve done and others. It is quite clear that these domains of well-being are interrelated. If you improve social relationships, you are also more likely to subsequently improve happiness and health and find meaning.
If you have a sense of meaning, you find a new purpose, you’re likely to become happier and healthier too. It is therefore necessary to work on each of these aspects: We must strengthen relationships and communities; we need to address the economic conditions facing young people; we must help them find systems of meaning. We need to address mental health issues, issues of anxiety and depression, but this will not be enough. The problem is much broader.
We also have to think about economic and health policy. To what extent are we thinking about the common good, not just across political lines but across generational lines? Not just what will help us in the next three to five years, but what will shape future generations? We found greater differences between age groups than between groups defined by gender or race.
How can we structure society so that young people have opportunities, and so that their well-being is promoted? How do we get there from here? I don’t have all the answers, but it’s very important that we take this seriously.
About this psychology research news
Author: Alvin Powell
Contact: Alvin Powell – Harvard
Image: The image is in the public domain
Original search: Open access
“National data on age gradients in well-being among US adults” by Ying Chen et al. JAMA Psychiatry
National data on age gradients in well-being among US adults
There has been growing concern about the well-being of young people in the US, but the evidence has focused on mental health.
Taking a comprehensive approach to well-being, we used data from a nationally representative sample of US adults to examine well-being scores by age group across numerous domains.