The U.S. economy may be recovering, but Americans aren’t getting any happier: Only one in three Americans say they’re very happy, according to a recent Harris Poll.
The online poll of 2,345 U.S. adults, conducted last month, used a series of questions to determine Americans’ levels of contentment and life satisfaction. Overall, just 33 percent of Americans said that they were very happy, remaining consistent with happiness levels in 2011 but dropping from the 35 percent who reported being very happy in 2008 and 2009.
“Our happiness index offers insight into what’s on the minds of Americans today and is a reflection of the state of affairs in our country,” Regina Corso, Senior Vice President of the Harris Poll, said in a statement. “While the attitudes on the economy may be improving, we’re seeing that this is not translating into an improvement in overall happiness. For certain groups, such as minorities, recent graduates and the disabled, they are actually sub-segments of the American population where ‘happiness’ has trended downward in the last couple years.”
Economic conditions might play a role in declining happiness levels (and increasing stress levels) among recent college graduates and the Millennial generation more generally. Rising college tuition costs, mounting student loan debt, and high levels of unemployment and underemployment have all contributed to Generation Y being labeled America’s “Most Stressed Generation.” In fact, according to the recent Stress in America survey, young people report significantly higher stress levels than their older counterparts.
And just as stress levels generally decrease with age, happiness levels increase with age over the long term. The poll showed that Americans over the age of 50 are more likely to be very happy (36 of those ages 50-64, and 41 percent of adults ages 65+) than young people (31 percent of ages 18-24, 30 percent of ages 25-29, and 28 percent of ages 30-39).
The findings are in line with a body of research, recently reported in The Economist, which has shown a “U-curve” of happiness based on age. By this model, happiness levels are fairly high during youth, dip during the 40s, and increase again in the mid-50s, peaking late in life. Stress levels also peak in the early 20s (when happiness levels are declining) and then sharply decrease, according to The Economist.
For all ages, however, the survey reflected a general decline in optimism levels among Americans, with only 67 percent of respondents saying that they were optimistic about the future, as compared to 75 percent in 2011. Optimism levels in the U.S. are significantly below the global average — 89 percent of citizens internationally feel that the future will be as good or better than their present situation, according to a recent Gallup World Poll.
But on the bright side, other research has found that Americans are less likely than ever before to view wealth as a necessary ingredient to a happy life. Only around one in four Americans still believes that wealth determines success, according to the recent LifeTwist study. The survey’s authors noted, “Americans are increasingly placing greater priority on living a fulfilling life –- in which being wealthy is not the most significant factor.”
This change in attitude may be in part a reaction to the impacts of the recession, as financial and personal hardships can actually be a catalyst for greater happiness and well-being. While 43 percent of Americans surveyed in the LifeTwist Study said that they’ve experienced a financial setback, more than 50 percent said that such experiences have helped them realize what’s truly important, and 42 percent say that the obstacle has opened their eyes to new experiences.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., University of California psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, explains: “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.”