At a dinner party this weekend, a friend of mine turned to me with a burning question. She asked, "Would you rate your happiness level now as the same as it was in college, lower now, or higher now?" I ranked my personal happiness level as about the same, but it got me wondering: Are millennials, on the whole, happy?
As far as I can tell (and as far as the data shows), we're at least about as happy as anyone else in America.
The search for happiness defines contemporary America — at least according to the New York Times. It certainly defines a sub-section of Times articles.
And it seems to be a topic of concern for millennials as well. Thought Catalog, that well-known second-person source of all things 20-something, recently published a piece called "Fairy Tales for 20-Somethings: Sleeping Beauty, Depressed and on Facebook."
Sleeping Beauty was lying in bed checking Facebook from her phone, just feeling so completely alone in her depression. Then she came across a post from an acquaintance about how sad he was, it was a darkness that made him feel like nobody could ever understand how he felt. “Is there anyone else who feels this way?” he asked.
She felt a sense of relief wash over her, a little bit of joy, and thought, At least I’m not so sad I wrote about it on Facebook.
The last opinion on millennial happiness here at PolicyMic was voiced by the fabulous Elena Sheppard. She writes, "There are so many things to do, live up to, and plan for that we have collectively de-prioritized the one thing that matters most: happiness."
But according to a global study "The Next Normal: An Unprecedented Look At Millennials Worldwide" conducted by Viacom, about 76% of millennials describe themselves as "very happy." Happiness outweighs stress 2 to 1 for millennials. The Pew Research Center partially corroborates these findings, reporting that 31% of millennials are very happy and 56% are somewhat happy. (12% report being not too happy.)
Pew further notes that employed millennials are happier than unemployed millennials; 1 in 3 employed millennials report being "very happy." This is unfortunate, given that around 11% of millennials are currently unemployed.
Millennials are probably as happy as any other age demographic, as the happiness gap across age groups appears to be narrowing. Researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research have tracked what they call "happiness inequality" in the United States from 1972 to 2006.
They found that while happiness has failed to grow overall since the 1970s, inequalities in happiness across groups have lessened. For example, "Two-thirds of the black-white happiness gap has been eroded, and the gender happiness gap has disappeared entirely, with more recent data suggesting that it may even have inverted. Paralleling changes in the income distribution, differences in happiness by education have widened substantially."
The authors further note that, "The average happiness of prime age and older Americans has fallen over time, while the average happiness of the young has stayed the same. Because average happiness typically rises with age, these patterns have meant a reduction in inequality between age groups."
Similarly, other happiness scholars suggest that happiness is U-shaped. According to these researchers, your happiness at age 25 will probably be replicated at age 65, but will drop in your 30s and 40s. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and Lore offers the following infographic, which shows the age at which people are least happy across the world.
Still, older millennials shouldn't panic: Other researchers have suggested that the magic age of happiness may be 33.
It's difficult to conclusively answer whether or not millennials are happier or less happier than their older or younger counterparts, not solely because happiness is a subjective state, and thus all data is dependent on self-defined and self-reported measures of happiness. But if the New York Times is right — and the pursuit of happiness continues to define America — millennials will be fine once we get it. Or maybe once we get a job.