Which generation is the happiest and most fulfilled?
Potential arguments could be made for a number of different groups. Younger generations often enjoy good physical health and have excitement and anticipation for the future. People in older generations have often gained wisdom and perspective, while those in the middle typically have more financial stability and could enjoy the best of both worlds.
To get some actual data on the subject, surveys have been given for decades, although many don’t span the entire adult age range. One survey that has, however, was recently published in the respected journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Using phone or online interviews based on a 12-item rating scale, the researchers assessed six domains of well-being: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material stability. A total of 2,598 surveys were gathered across five age groups, labeled, in order from oldest to youngest, the Silent Generation (age 77 and above), Boomers (58 to 76), Gen X (42 to 57), Millennials (26 to 41), and Gen Z (18-25). The raw scores were weighted to be representative of American adults.
The main result of the study was that, across all six domains, there was a clear linear trend with increasing well-being scores being related to older generations. The widest gaps were found between the Silent Generation and the GenZers, with the other generations in between. The incrementally rising well-being scores as one moved from the Gen Z generation through Millennials, GenXers, Boomers, and finally the Silent Generation was remarkably similar across the six well-being dimensions. Smaller differences were also found related to race but the authors reported no differences by sex.
In the interpretation of these results, the authors of the study highlight what is and isn’t more newsworthy about these new data. The finding that older Americans often report high levels of well-being despite frequent physical health concerns and fixed incomes isn’t actually all that surprising for folks who have studied happiness and well-being. What may be more novel, however, is that some past studies of age and well-being have shown more U-shaped curves—with higher reported well-being among both the oldest and youngest generations. This more linear trend suggests the possibility that self-reported well-being may be dropping in young adults.
Unfortunately, the study doesn’t have earlier data on these folks, so it is difficult to untangle what might be real associations between age and well-being versus a cohort effect (i.e., different generations varying in their self-reported well-being regardless of their current age). Overall, the data contribute to the concern that our youth are struggling, and this may be a broader phenomenon beyond those with clinical mental health challenges.