From a cursory glance, it would seem that anyone born within the last 20-odd years is in bad shape. The recession has sent thousands of unemployed millennials back to mom and dad’s house, and kids today actually have shorter life expectancies than their parents, possibly as a result of skyrocketing rates of obesity and related diseases.
But according to the results of a new study (and contrary to the opinion of anyone claiming that “the good old days” have come and gone), each new generation is happier than ones that came before it The Effect of Birth Cohort on Well Being: The Legacy of Economic Hard Times. Sutin, A.R., Terracciano, A., Milaneschi, Y., et al. National Institute on Aging, Baltimore, Maryland. Psychological Science 2013 Jan 24.. What the heck do they have to be so smiley about?
What’s the Deal?
Researchers were interested in two basic issues: how well-being changes across the lifespan, and how it varies between people born at different times. They looked at data from two long-term studies that tracked different groups of Americans throughout their lifetimes. The final paper summarizes the findings that jumped out at them: First, and perhaps most surprisingly, participants born more recently had higher levels of well-being than people born before them. Second, people tend to get happier as they age.
The researchers attribute the difference in happiness levels across age groups mostly to changes in the country’s economic circumstances. In the paper, they note that those born in the early 20th century, aka the Great Depression, had significantly lower levels of well-being than people who grew up during more economically stable periods after World War II. To back up their claims, they point to the wealth of research linking higher income to greater well-being. The researchers also note that, throughout most of the 20th century, overall health improved: Life expectancy increased significantly, infant mortality decreased, and Americans were generally better nourished Changes in life expectancy 1900-1990. Kinsella, K.G. Center for International Research, US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992 Jun;55(6 Suppl):1196S-1202S..
These findings are somewhat surprising given the fact that other research points to national declines in physical health, especially among young Americans. In 2005, researchers announced that children’s life expectancy in the U.S. had actually decreased for the first time in 200 years. But when it comes to mental health, it seems the conditions for personal satisfaction are only getting easier to come by.
Is It Legit?
Probably. This study is one of the first to measure the effect of age and time of birth on happiness levels. But other, similar research suggests the study’s two main claims are pretty much on-target. A number of studies report that levels of well-being follow a U-shaped curve across the lifespan. In other words, happiness tends to decrease between age 18 and middle age, and then increase steadily throughout the rest of the lifespan Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Blanchflower, D.G., Oswald, A.J. Department of Economics, Dartmouth College. Social Science & Medicine 2008 Apr;66(8):1733-49..
Other research suggests happiness might rely most on historical context. A 2008 study found baby boomers tend to be less happy than people born earlier or later, possibly because they grew up with such high expectations for success and personal satisfaction. The same study also notes that happiness levels tend to increase during periods of national economic prosperity.
Of course, this research has some potential limitations. The authors note that one of the longitudinal studies they examined reflected a largely college-educated group, so the findings might not be generalizable to the entire population. It’s also worth noting that the current study is based on self-reports, so people might not have been honest or just might not have remembered their happiness levels accurately.
But despite these drawbacks, this study has some important takeaways. Since economic conditions seem to be so important for people’s happiness levels, it would be interesting to measure the effects of the recent recession in a few years. In the meantime, young whippersnappers can take heart from the fact that the best may be yet to come.
What do you think are the most important factors for personal happiness? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.