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Over 30 and frustrated? Adult happiness declines, while teen contentment grows

Adults over 30 used to have a "happiness advantage" over teens and twentysomethings, but no more. What's changed?
/ Source: TODAY

With hormones raging, moods swinging and uncertainty looming, the teen years have traditionally been a turbulent time for most people, giving adults over 30 a “happiness advantage” over adolescents.

No more. The gap in life satisfaction between those two age groups has dwindled, disappearing in the last few years, a recent study has found.

“You’re not as happy at 30 as previous generations were,” Jean Twenge, lead researcher and author of “Generation Me,” told TODAY.

“Most (research) suggests that age brings happiness because people become more content, they become more settled overall… We found that since 2010, that’s no longer true.”

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The very things that make modern life exciting for younger people — fast connections on social media or their smartphones and the possibility of a lucrative job or exciting love life just ahead — may be disappointing for adults who crave more fulfilling relationships and know the cold, hard reality of life, the researchers note.

Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, listed three possible reasons for the happiness pattern change over time:

1. Fewer stable relationships

Stable relationships are a strong predictor of happiness, but we seem to be making fewer true commitments and connections.

The marriage rate in the United States has reached a 93-year low, the study notes. People don’t join community groups like they used to and a recent study showed we have fewer friends we can confide in, Twenge pointed out.

“So we really see an overall pattern of breakdown in relationships. That’s not as much of a problem when you’re in your 20s, but for people over 30, that’s going to be more of a problem,” she said.

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One of the biggest changes in American culture over the last few decades has been the increase in individualism, which places more emphasis on the self, and less on relationships and social rules, the study noted.

“Focusing on yourself and maybe having just short-term relationships and having a lot of freedom is very exciting when you’re young,” Twenge said.

“But then for most people when they get older, that’s not what they want anymore. That freedom, which was so much fun when you were younger, ends up being potentially lonely.”

2. Economic realities

Economic circumstances may play a big role. As a teen, you imagine great wealth awaits when you start working, but after you spend a few years in the rat race trying to make ends meet, you may soon discover your earnings may not be enough to provide a comfortable lifestyle.

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“People who are young might still think they’re going to make it, and then your average person over 30 is starting to realize that they’re not going to make it,” Twenge said.

If the economy improves a lot, then happiness among adults will probably go up, she added.

3. High expectations

Increasingly unrealistic expectations about jobs, relationships, income and status may be exciting for teens, but disappointing for adults who come to understand they won’t be able to achieve many of those goals.

“What happens when high expectations collide with reality? (People over 30) are realizing that their dreams are not going to come true,” Twenge said.

The rise of social media may play a role, too, the study notes.

Sites like Facebook, with their endless images of parties, vacations and date nights, may be fun, but they also lead people to compare themselves to others and feel inadequate. That may bother you more as you get older.

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For the study, Twenge and her colleagues examined four surveys that included 1.3 million Americans ages 13 to 96, and spanned the 1970s to 2014. They focused on how the respondents rated their happiness and life satisfaction.

A pattern soon emerged: While people over 30 were happier than teens and twentysomethings in previous eras, modern adults are less content than their predecessors. At the same time, the younger groups are happier.

The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science; this story was originally published November 2015.

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