To get to the bottom of why, we need to define what makes someone happy or unhappy in the first place. It comes down to a simple formula:
HAPPINESS = REALITY – EXPECTATIONS
It’s pretty straightforward—when the reality of someone’s life is better than they had expected, they’re happy. When reality turns out to be worse than the expectations, they’re unhappy.
To provide some context, let’s start by bringing my parents into the discussion:
My parents were born in the 50s. They were raised by my grandparents, members of the “the Greatest Generation,” who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II.
My Depression Era grandparents were obsessed with economic security and raised my parents to build practical, secure careers. They wanted my parents’ careers to have greener grass than their own, and my parents were brought up to envision a prosperous and stable career for themselves.
They were taught that there was nothing stopping them from getting to that lush, green lawn of a career, but that they’d need to put in years of hard work to make it happen.
After graduating from being insufferable hippies, my parents embarked on their careers. As the 70s, 80s, and 90s rolled along, the world entered a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. My parents did even better than they expected to. This left them feeling gratified and optimistic.
With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, my parents raised me with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone.
This left my generations feeling tremendously hopeful about their careers, to the point where their parents’ goals of a green lawn of secure prosperity didn’t really do it for them. My generation-worthy lawn has flowers.
Until recently, research converged on the latter: Older people are happier, with happiness peaking when people reach their 60s and 70s. Maturity leads to more contentment and a greater appreciation of what really matters in life, such as spending time with loved ones and helping others.
Why has this happened? A prime suspect is our modern belief system that everyone should follow their dreams. New media makes fame seem like just one viral video away. With expectations so high, less happiness is the inevitable result. Many of the Millennials (born approximately 1980-1994) are angry. No one told us it was going to be this hard, they say.
This rigged game is also exacerbated by income inequality: You either make it or you don’t, and those who make it are taking an increasingly large share. Adolescents and young adults still think they can make it, but most adults over 30 realise they won’t. Surveys around the world found that adults’ happiness was lower when income inequality was higher.
Part of the problem lies in the shifting definition of the THE DREAM. Not long ago, achieving the Dream meant getting a steady job, having a family, and owning a house. It’s now morphed into a flight of fancy involving instant fame, extreme wealth, and the adoration of millions. Even when it stays a little more realistic, the Dream is now more likely to involve a McMansion than a starter home, and more likely to emphasise material success than family life. College students’ desire to become “very well-off financially” is significantly higher than in the 1970s and reached an all-time high of 82 percent in 2014. However, the importance of raising a family slid since 2003, with more students now valuing wealth than family.
The pursuit of wealth can be an invigorating way to spend one’s 20s. However, this goal has two problems. First, most people won’t be able to achieve it. Second, valuing wealth won’t make them happy. Studies consistently find that people who value money, fame, and image are less happy than those who value community and affiliation with others.
Yet focusing on relationships with others is not as easy as it used to be, either. People are now less likely to know their neighbours or join community groups. Personal relationships have fared no better: The martial satisfaction has declined, and the majority of first children are now born to unmarried mothers. Modern life provides less of the community interaction and fewer of the stable personal relationships that people — need for happiness. It’s easy to swipe through Tinder, but harder to establish a stable, emotionally close adult relationship.
The technology-driven, highly individualistic, never-stop-dreaming culture of recent years provides a sweet nectar of constant possibility and boundless expectations for those young enough to enjoy it. For people over 30, it has instead become a disappointing, frustrating, and often lonely existence in a more circumscribed reality.
Being an established, mature, and respectable adult was once a goal young people strived for. Now, we wish we could dream forever.