Americans used to get happier in their thirties. Not any more

For decades, Americans struggled through angst-filled and turbulent teenage years only to become happier once they reached the full bloom of adulthood. But that link between age and happiness disappeared in 2010, according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science on Nov. 5. Adolescents have become steadily happier while those in their thirties are more miserable.

The authors of the study, led by Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, analyzed four nationally representative surveys from the 1970s to 2014, with a total sample size of 1.32 million people, to reach their conclusions. But they can only offer theories, rather than definitive answers, as to why older people are less happy when they used to be.

One theory is that unrealistically high expectations have set adults up for disappointment. If young people are constantly told that they can achieve anything they want, then that could well boost their happiness while they are still in school and untested—but would lead to a drop in happiness for those who don’t become as high-earning or successful as they were led to expect.

Twenge expanded on her paper in an article for The Atlantic, where she wrote:

Big dreams feel great when you’re an adolescent or a young adult just starting out. But somewhere around their late 20s, most people begin to realize reality isn’t going to match up. When those dreams are more widespread than they used to be, the inevitable crash will be, too.

Another possible reason for the decline in 30-something happiness, the researchers speculate, is that the decrease in stable relationships and marriage have left adults feeling less supported. This would make less of a difference to teenagers, who tend to be more focused on self-development, and are free to enjoy the benefits of the rise in individualistic culture.

“With higher individualism, young people have more to enjoy, while mature adults may not get the social support they need,” write the authors. “Perhaps new technology such as social media and cell phones has enhanced young people’s lives while having a detrimental effect on mature adults’ SWB [subjective well-being].”

The authors don’t discuss what happens to people as they get beyond their thirties, but other research has suggested that, across many cultures, people’s overall happiness bottoms out in their forties and starts to rise again in their fifties. For those happy-go-lucky, individualistic teens of today, it could be a pretty long ride into the doldrums.

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