Young adults under 35 who are single and non-religious report the highest levels of unhappiness since the COVID-19 pandemic began and since 1972, when the General Social Survey began measuring levels of happiness among Americans, a new analysis from the Institute of Family Studies suggests.
While data from the GSS indicates all demographics are generally reporting higher levels of unhappiness, it also shows that in 2021, a historic share of Americans said they are “not too happy.”
“From 1972 to 2018, no more than 18% of Americans ages 35 and over had ever claimed to be ‘not too happy,’ and no more than 16% of Americans under 35 had done so. In every year ever measured, people over and under age 35 had similar levels of unhappiness,” Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, wrote. “But in 2021, unhappiness rocketed upwards for both groups, to 22% for those 35 and over, and a whopping 30% for those under age 35.”
While noting that the increases in the share of people who are feeling “not too happy” represent “historic highs for each age demographic,” Stone said “the unusually sharp increase for those under 35 points to a unique burden of unhappiness among young adults over the last few years.”
“American young adults have begun to take an extraordinarily dim view of the world and their own lives. The path to understanding why unhappiness has risen so much more among young Americans begins by understanding the groups among whom it has risen the most,” he said.
The analysis also found that among young adults who are married, only about 6% said they were “not too happy,” compared to 16% of unmarried young adults.
The report also highlighted religiosity as a factor impacting happiness.
Among people who attended religious services at least two times per month, Stone noted that unhappiness rose by only 4%, the smallest increase of any demographic highlighted in the research. For individuals who attended religious services less frequently, unhappiness rose by 15%.
“This difference was highly statistically significant, suggesting that participation in religious community may serve as a useful buffer against adverse events in life,” Stone said.
Other factors influencing unhappiness, but were not statistically significant in some cases, are sex, race and political affiliation.
“Some demographic traits did matter more: men saw their unhappiness rise 18%, versus just 12% for women. Unhappiness rose about 17% for non-Hispanic whites, versus about 12% for racial and ethnic minorities. But these differences are not statistically significant; they could have arisen just from random noise,” Stone noted.
“The only factors that appear meaningfully protective against the post-COVID unhappiness spike are marriage and religious attendance,” he added. “Married church-attenders are markedly happier than other young adults. Some of this may be selection bias, but some of it may also be causal effects of deeper social ties providing material and psychological resources for dealing with life’s challenges.”
The study found that the share of Americans under 35 who were married churchgoers has dropped from 24% in 1972 to 7% in 2021. According to stone, this reality leaves "more and more young adults exposed to life’s troubles with little help."
"One possible result of this change, as we have seen these last few years, is that more young people lack the vital support of a spouse and a religious community, and thus new forms of adversity can rapidly lead to astonishingly severe levels of unhappiness," Stone concludes.