In recent decades, economists studying life satisfaction have noticed a pattern among their data, a pattern that is homogenous among different countries and cultures. Most people’s perceived happiness appears to take a nose dive in adulthood, reaching a low at forty or fifty years-old, before heading back up an incline.
The relationship between life-satisfaction and age is known to economists as the happiness curve. For the discontent millennials, it may be encouraging to know that they can expect a happiness dividend to be paid later in life. Young people, however, could be redefining the happiness curve.
In both the UK and US there has been an unfortunate rise of anxiety, worry and, ultimately, depression among young people. Last April, a survey of more than 2,000 Britons aged between 16-25 discovered that half of their participants had experienced a mental health problem, a quarter reported hopelessness and nearly half concluded they were ill quipped to cope with setbacks in life. Likewise, a 2017 survey of 63,500 college students found that 39% reported to have felt “so depressed it was hard to function.” In comparison to 2008, the number of hospitalisations due to suicide attempts had doubled in 2015. Unhappiness with life, for this generation, has begun much earlier than the happiness curve would’ve predicted.
There are many strains of though that could explain some of the variance of these rising rates of depression. Inequality is rising, opportunity is shrinking and competition for high paid jobs is becoming more cut throat. Yet, these reasons all fall short of sufficiently explaining the rise in depression and cases of anxiety.
In 2018, an inter-parliamentary group comprised of representatives from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway, released a report titled In the Shadow of Happiness. The Nordic countries time-and-again occupy the top spots in the UN’s world happiness rankings – the cause of which is often attributed to the effect of having a meritocratic foundation bolstered by a generous welfare state and a good work-life balance. The report, however, set-out to uncover the reasons for why a minority of the population were, despite living under such egalitarian conditions, unhappy.
The report uncovered two populations that were emotionally suffering to a significant extent: the very old (over 80-years-old) and the young. 13.4 per cent of 18-23-year-olds were found to either be struggling or suffering; in other words, one punch from not reaching the 10-count. The authors concluded this rise can be attributed to simultaneously rising rates of mental illness. Norway has seen a 40 per cent rise of young people seeking help for mental illness in the last five years. Similarly, suicide is accountable for a third of all deaths among 15-24-year-olds.
There it is, conclusive evidence that young people are beginning their trip into unhappiness far earlier, with additional mental health problems to accompany.
So, what’s going on? Johann Hari, in his 2018 book Lost Connections, explores the blight and causes of depression. He interviewed social scientists, biologists and psychologists belonging to different cultures and countries and began to piece together the broken jigsaw that – if put together – would explain depression.
Humans have a basic need for food, water, shelter and clean air, yet, this survival list isn’t exhaustive. Hari would add that humans have further basic psychological needs that must be satiated. He argues we need to feel we belong; feel valued. We need to feel we have a competency and experience some certainty about our future direction in life. Hari suggests we’re becoming disconnected from the things that are psychologically integral for our wellbeing and that the changing of the happiness curve is due to this psychological famine.
Humans need to feel a sense of purpose and that they’re contributing to society. But, from between 2011 and 2012, Gallup conducted a survey that asked people how they felt doing their most time-consuming activity– paid work. The survey showed that 13 per cent of people felt “engaged” in their work: these people find their work meaningful and actively anticipate the beginning of the working day. Conversely, 63 per cent reported being “not engaged,” which was defined in the survey to mean “sleepwalking through the working day. 24 per cent reported being “actively disengaged,” i.e. they hate it. If this is true for people currently occupying a paid position of work, imagine being a young person whose job prospects, as the Trade Union Congress say, are “rapidly” deteriorating. This is a clear and present danger to one of Hari’s psychological needs: certainty regarding the direction of our future life.
Depression among the young, driven by a lack of certainty, could further increase as the labour market becomes further occupied by artificial intelligence. According to the Word Economic Forum, by 2025, it’s estimated that work done by machines will jump from 29 percent-to-50 per cent. Thus, it’s unlikely that young people will even have the chance of being part of that 13 per cent who find purpose from their paid work.
If today’s young don’t have the opportunity to find meaning in paid work, where do they search for it? The answer: social media. On facebook, snapchat and Instagram, teenagers share their experience, thoughts and affective states to potentially millions every day. People partake in creating such an online presence in order to share something of themselves and, ultimately, to gain the confirmation that they mean something and are valued human beings. However, this also opens-up young people to an abundance of judgement – something that was never possible in previous generations. In 2017, in her book iGen, Jean Twenge, a psychologist, attributes the change in the happiness curve for young people to the spread of smartphones and the exponential rise of social media. Twenge’s research found that social media use was coupled with greater feelings of anxiety and depression. One of her studies found a 35 per cent risk factor increase of planned suicide if a person spent more than three hours-a-day on social media.
Our younger generation need what all of us need: meaning, purpose and clarity of the future. Yet, our societies are suffering from a famine of all three – with no end to the shortage in-sight.