The unhappiness factor: Why are young people in the US unhappy?

The unhappiness factor: Why are young people in the US unhappy?

Last month, the World Happiness Report for 2024 came out, with Finland crowned as the world’s happiest country for the seventh year in a row. Followed by neighbors Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, the top five is dominated by Nordic countries. Meanwhile, the United States dropped out of the top 20 for the first time ever, now No. 23 on the list.

When adjusted for age, a concerning statistic emerges. The U.S. is No. 10 for those over 60 but not even in the top 50 for those under 30. Ranked at No. 62, young people’s scores were low enough to push the U.S. out of the top 20. Australia, New Zealand and Canada follow a similar pattern despite still being top 20 countries. In the past, happiness was the greatest among young people. Why is our generation so unhappy?

Many point to the aftermath of COVID-19, climate change and political polarization as reasons behind our unhappiness. The COVID-19 pandemic isolated us as we entered adulthood, keeping us from our daily in-person interactions at school and work. Weather and climate disasters are rising in frequency and intensity, painting a bleak picture of our future. Global conflicts and ever-increasing polarization make the political environment unbearable.

However, happiness has been decreasing for all age groups since 2006 to 2010—particularly for young people. Back then, COVID-19 had not yet happened, climate change was still in the background and Donald Trump was far away from the presidency. Instead, a different series of events occurred.

Lucas Yang

Facebook opened itself to the public in 2006, and Apple began selling the iPhone in 2007. By 2011, a majority of Americans were on Facebook and by 2013, most used smartphones. Internet use soared.

This is no mere coincidence. Happiness is falling due to the rise of social media.

From Facebook to TikTok, 84% of Americans aged 18 to 29 use social media regularly, in contrast to 45% of those over 65. And platforms are eating away at our time. We are sleeping less, exercising less and socializing in person less. Social media is fueling a loneliness epidemic, with rates of loneliness at the highest among young people. It creates unrealistic expectations of how our lives should be, fostering an environment where we continually compare ourselves to others. It amplifies the global problems we face, throwing headline after headline at us.

COVID-19 only heightened social isolation. Climate change and world conflicts affect us so much because of the constant bombardment of information. Political polarization has been made worse by platforms’ echo chambers. The generations before us all dealt with their own political and global worries, yet they were still happier. It is undeniable: Social media is the root of our generation’s unhappiness.

But it does not have to be this way. Globally, young people have experienced improved and now stable life satisfaction since 2006. Excluding North America, Western Europe, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the rest of the world has seen a rise. In fact, those in the developing world are particularly optimistic—they have hope that their circumstances will improve, unlike those in developed countries. Research has found they also have stronger family and community bonds.

So, how can we become happier? First, we need to limit our time on social media, especially passive scrolling. Instead, we should use social media in the way it was intended—to stay connected with our friends and family. Second, we have to connect more with people in real life, face-to-face. Making plans with friends and chatting with the people we encounter during the day are the best ways to boost our moods. And lastly, we cannot lose hope. We have the power to shape our futures and change the world little by little.

Let us all prioritize our happiness—it matters.

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