It’s not a great time to be a mid-career adult. While youngsters are thriving in the modern world and happier than ever before, people in their thirties are hitting a wall. This is the fault both of the Internet and of our own unrealistic expectations.
A new study out of San Diego University looks at the difference in happiness levels in the U.S. between 1972 and 2014, broken down by age, and based on a metric called subjective well-being.
Subjective well-being–which is simply how you perceive your own happiness–can be affected by income, lifestyle, and leisure as well as social support and relationships (to name only a few examples). The factors vary depending on age, with the surprise that older people live more for the moment, whereas the young plan for the future:
The causes of SWB may also differ from one age group to another. Young people take more risks and seek novelty and information that will benefit them in the future. In contrast, older people, whose time horizon is relatively more limited, are more likely to cultivate current relationships that are fulfilling in the present.
And this, says the study, is at the root of the malaise felt by today’s over-30 crowd. The Internet provides exactly what young people like: endless novelty, perceived risk, and information. It also allows for a strong culture of individuality, while still maintaining a feeling of belonging–social networks, for instance, let us feel connected while we enjoy the selfish benefits of being alone.
When we grow out of this stage, the same structures seem hollow. We crave meaningful relationships with real people, we seek stability in our material lives. “Adolescence and young adulthood are self-focused life stages, but mature adulthood often involves the maintenance of committed relationships and a setting aside of individual needs,” write the paper’s authors Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “With higher individualism, young people have more to enjoy, while mature adults may not get the social support they need.”
The availability of information, and the setup of the mindset of the U.S., which teaches us we can achieve anything, as long as we want it hard enough, also leads to disappointment. Compared to middle-aged adults in the 1970s, today’s adults may be disillusioned by their failure to achieve such heights, whereas teens, with their eyes still on the future, are happy at the endless opportunities laying ahead.
The survey data that the new study is based on comes from the General Social Survey, which collects social and demographic information broken down by age, race, sex, and so on. It asks questions about the responders satisfaction level with a variety of aspects of their life, from things like their job and the way they spend their leisure time to “the safety of things you own from being stolen or destroyed in your neighborhood, on your job, and in your school,” and “the way our national government is operating.” Thus, the increase in information about the world, plus the scare tactics employed by TV news channels, could be big factors in the country-wide mid-life crisis.
The numbers in the paper show small only differences, and as the authors themselves note, their conclusions are speculative. But the one thing that’s certain is that the overall trend of the happiness figures is a slow, relentless drop for adults, and a comparatively steeper increase for teens.
So is there anything that us grown-ups can take away from this that will cheer us up? Sure, just think about this: The happier a teenager becomes today, the bigger their disappointment will be tomorrow. See if that doesn’t brighten your day.