Happiness is typically U-shaped throughout your life. The US has changed that.

Illustration of unhappy girl with dark cloud over her
Many young people in North America are unhappy, breaking the U-shaped curve of contentment in life.Andrii Shyp/Getty Images
  • A recent global report found a decline in young people's happiness in North America.

  • That's upending the idea that happiness in life follows a U shape. In North America, it now looks more like a J.

  • The US dropped from the top 20 happiest countries, largely due to young people's unhappiness.

Age is just a number — and maybe an indicator of your happiness.

The decline in happiness among young people in North America is upending a theory that our levels of happiness throughout our lives tend to play out in the shape of a U: contentment is high in our youth, slips in middle age, and rebounds in our golden years.

Now, however, to read the 2024 World Happiness Report, released in March by Gallup in partnership with other organizations, the trajectory of satisfaction for some young people in North America might look less like a U and more like a J.

While there's a lot to be unhappy about, and there have always been threats to our well-being, what might be different for today's young people ages 15 to 24 in North America is social isolation.

Laura Aknin, an editor on the report, said during a Semafor event following the report's release that not feeling like they have someone to turn to could be one reason young people are reporting "significantly lower levels" of being satisfied with their lives than other groups.

"Some of that has to do with lower levels of satisfaction regarding one's support from friends and family," Aknin said, explaining that young people might find they don't have anyone they can count on when they need it.

She added that "younger adults in North America also reported lower levels of trust in the government, higher levels of concerns around corruption. They're also reporting more stress and anxiety than they did before and lower satisfaction with their living circumstances."

Why the U-curve is broken

Concern for today's youth prompted US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to declare loneliness an epidemic.

To be sure, it's no shock young people aren't feeling great: In the US, the cost of living has shot higher since the pandemic, buying a home is often out of reach, our politics can feel beyond repair, and the climate crisis looms.

Additionally, some young people in the US are having trouble landing a job despite a hot labor market, and to make matters worse, many of them are graduating from college with high student-debt loads, throwing into question the value of a college degree.

But even with those stressors, Christopher Wong Michaelson, a business professor at the University of St. Thomas and New York University and coauthor of the forthcoming book "Is Your Work Worth It?," encourages his students to try to avoid some of the mid-life traps that lead to the U-bend.

He told BI that expecting that we have to suffer through periods for the sake of career success or some future happiness can be akin to "allowing some of the best years of our lives to go down the drain so that we can prepare for retirement that might never come or that might not come in the form that we anticipated."

The idea of dual peaks in contentedness came from a 2010 article in The Economist called "The U-bend of life." While not all social scientists agreed, the U-curve idea said things start off great when we're young, can get bleak around the time of the proverbial midlife crisis, and then, contrary to prior thinking, don't just result in a slide toward gray-haired obsolescence. Instead, people often report being happy in retirement — if it's a fulfilling one.

While many countries are still seeing the U-bend in action, young people in North America are experiencing high levels of social isolation and are concerned about their futures.

While some of the World Happiness report's results aligned with prior years — Finland remained the happiest country in the world — the US dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since the report began more than a decade ago, sliding to 23rd position.

A factor: Some places are getting happier due to increased social support, good economic conditions, healthy life expectancy, and generosity, among other things, which pushed the US lower in the rankings. Good for you, Czechia, Lithuania, and Slovenia.

Read the original article on Business Insider