Twenty years ago, life satisfaction surveys of those 18 and older showed the highest readings among America’s younger and older adults, with those in between struggling with jobs, families, and other cares of middle life. Now, a Harvard-led study examining a dozen measures of well-being show younger adults tallying the lowest scores of any age group. Tyler VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and senior author of the study, said the results reflect not just a longer-standing mental health crisis among younger Americans that predates and was worsened by the pandemic, but a broader crisis in which they perceive not just their mental but also their physical health, social connectedness, and other measures of flourishing as worse than other age groups. VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that should grab policymakers’ attention.
GAZETTE: Clearly, they’re related, but how is well-being different from mental health?
VANDERWEELE: Obviously, mental health is important. It is important to address issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, suicidality for youth and for adults. Having said that, I think we’ve neglected broader questions of well-being or flourishing that I understand in very holistic terms as living in a state in which all aspects of one’s life are good. That takes into account mental health, physical health, and — more broadly — happiness, having a sense of meaning and purpose, trying to be a good person, one’s social relationships, and the financial, material conditions that sustain these things that people care about.
GAZETTE: The report compares results of a survey earlier this year against a similar study in 2000. What did that survey show about our state of well-being 22 years ago?
VANDERWEELE: A number of studies had found those who were younger and those who were older — if you just looked at happiness and life satisfaction — tended to be doing better than those in the middle. The speculation was that those in midlife were struggling more, dealing with young children, maybe also aging parents. Maybe they were at a point in their careers where they were trying to get ahead, possibly even having a midlife crisis. For those who were younger, the statistics from past decades suggested they were happier, maybe with a sense of greater opportunity, fewer responsibilities, more opportunities for social connection.
What was perhaps surprising in earlier surveys was that those who were older were also doing better than those in middle age. Though health problems often emerge with age, people were still happier. Maybe they felt that the struggles of life were resolved, or they had more time to connect socially. There’s also some evidence of greater emotional regulation as one ages, greater gratitude for what has taken place. These are averages, obviously, that disguise a lot of variability, but this curve was fairly consistently observed across countries.
GAZETTE: What did you find in your most recent survey?
VANDERWEELE: We were beginning to see this in January 2020, right before the pandemic. But January 2022 was the first time it was just absolutely clear: across every dimension of well-being that we looked at — happiness, health, meaning, character, relationships, financial stability — each one was strictly increasing with age. Those who are 18 to 25 felt they were worse off across all these dimensions. It was pretty striking, pretty disturbing.