NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Young People in U. S. and Europe are Increasingly Happy



"In 1972, 16 percent of young Americans (under 30) reported themselves as 'not too happy'; by 1990, only 9 percent."

Young people in the United States and Europe seem to be getting happier through time, according to a recent paper by NBER Research Associate David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald. In The Rising Well-Being of the Young(NBER Working Paper No. 6102), they report on surveys of random samples of young men and women who were asked how happy they feel, and how satisfied they are with various aspects of their lives.

In 1972, 16 percent of young Americans (under 30) reported themselves as "not too happy" and 30 percent said that they were "very happy." By 1990, according to the U.S. General Social Surveys, 9 percent of young Americans were not too happy and 33 percent were very happy. Older Americans, by contrast, indicated little change in their degree of happiness.

Eurobarometer Surveys asked a slightly different question: "On the whole, are you very satisfied, fairly satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with the life you lead." The surveys, from 1973 to 1992 in 13 nations of Europe (Belgium, Denmark, West Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Great Britain) produced similar results to those in the United States. When the data for the 13 nations is pooled, life satisfaction has been growing noticeably faster in the under-30 age group for 11 of the countries. Why Britain and Northern Ireland miss the upward trend in youth well-being is a puzzle, the two authors note.

In Europe about 20 percent of those in the youngest group, under age 20, were very satisfied in the early 1973 to 1975 period. This proportion had grown to 28 percent by 1992, whereas about 20 percent of the over-30s gave the "very satisfied" answer at the start of the surveys and 23 percent in 1992.

What does offer a clue to these findings is the fact that most of the increase in young people's well-being is to be found in the unmarried group. "It may be that young men and women have benefited from society's recently increased tolerance of those living outside marriage, and from their consequent ability to live in less formal relationships," they write. "It suggests that the ultimate answer is somehow connected to the role of family life and personal freedom."

Happiness and life satisfaction first fall and then rise over one's lifetime, reaching their minimum at age 30, and reportedly highest among women, whites, married people, the highly educated, and those with high incomes. Happiness is especially low among the unemployed, the authors find.


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