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Why are young people in the U.S. so unhappy?

Four students on their biggest stressors and how they cope
June 12, 2024
Read Time
7 min

Young people in the U.S. have become much less happy in recent years—a major reason the country fell, for the first time, from the top 20 in the latest World Happiness Report. People under 30 in the U.S. ranked 62nd for happiness among 143 countries surveyed. We asked some members of Gen Z whether the report reflects how they feel.

Sophie Szewp headshot
Sophie Szew

I believe that communities—including, potentially, those in the digital world—are where conversations about mental health that help youth build solidarity and resilience occur.

I was a 16-year-old with an eating disorder, and I spent nearly two years deeply isolated in hospitals. That isolation led to a kind of unhappiness that I couldn’t alleviate myself.

What I needed was to sit in my discomfort and turn it into advocacy against the system that failed to help me heal. This discomfort helped me channel the powerful emotions of that time into the communal work of changemaking.

My high school creative writing teacher was battling cancer at the time, and we started exchanging raw poems, angry emails, and frustrated musings with each other from our respective hospital beds. Those exchanges helped me recognize and express the rage I felt for a broken health care system.

Many other people have also found solace in online communities like Facebook illness groups, Reddit threads, and others. Creative expression rooted in communal grief has a long history of allowing people of all ages to find hope, healing, survival, and resistance.

It is time for us to nurture this grief’s potential to foster radical joy. We can embrace grief in community—even in digital community—and tap it as a source of power and catalyst for changemaking.

—Sophie Szew, Class of 2026, Stanford University

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Cynthia Yue speaking on a panel
Cynthia Yue

As a member of Generation Z, I have seen how many of us are struggling to find hope. We’re searching for it somewhere between the inherited battles against racial injustice, climate inaction, and the impossible costs of living.

Those feelings of anxiety and depression haven’t come out of a vacuum. We, too, are shaped by the negativity bias of news and social media, and this has influenced young people’s happiness levels. Negative news is associated with increased stress reactivity and better recall, suggesting that bad news sticks longer and more intensely in memory, particularly for women.

Negativity bias is not new. Since the 1960s, the news has taken a negative nosedive, particularly on topics surrounding policy and politics. What is new is social media, and an emerging body of literature indicates it takes a negative toll on its users’ mental health. People are more likely to click on news containing negative and emotional content, giving social media companies an immense incentive to develop algorithms that favor negative content.

Bad news uniquely affects young people. An early study about the way students view written descriptions found that negative comments affect young people more than positive comments. Negative emotions, events, and news also tend to evoke stronger emotional responses in young people. Another study showed that news alerts about school shootings in the U.S. make the majority of U.S. teens concerned about school safety.

Amidst a landscape in which trust in the media among American youth is historically low, our news landscape needs to shift to promote institutional trust and stories of hope. The incentives exist; solutions-based reporting and uplifting stories have been shown to encourage audience engagement, and positive news stories can increase a reader’s intentions to share the news. Our mental health depends on finding hope in all corners of life, including from the media.

—Cynthia Yue, Class of 2024, Harvard Kennedy School

Jose Caballero
Jose Caballero

I moved to the United States from Nicaragua in 2018. I’m the first in my family to graduate high school. Now I attend an Ivy League school on a full scholarship. All of these achievements are the fruits of my mother’s sacrifices—my mother, who tells people that “my son is my hope.”

But each week is filled with schoolwork, activism, and jobs to support myself. My mind and body are just trying to survive another day. I often wonder, “How do I find hope when I am supposed to be the hope?”

I know I am not alone.

As a Gen Z-er, I often feel like we’re constantly advocating for causes in a world that is perpetually in chaos and conflict. And some part of the trauma we experience is attributable to events that took place in prior generations. From my perspective, the World Happiness Report lacked one crucial variable that exacerbates unhappiness among youth: intergenerational trauma.

From global warming perpetuated by a Boomer generation focused on consumption rather than carbon to recent administrative crackdowns on college protests, the youth of today are afflicted by so much that came before us. When I see the levels of unhappiness and hopelessness among young people, I recognize the lasting impact and legacies of these historical injustices. I feel trapped in the past, and the past is trapped in me.

Band-Aids that cover up the depression and anxiety resulting from these traumas will be insufficient. Instead, give us a seat at the table.  Let us have a dialogue about what matters to us and how we should address it. Organizations like Inseparable, a campaign to improve mental health care, offer compelling models of successfully integrating youth perspectives into legislative processes. In Inseparable’s case, that’s led to over 40 legislative wins as of 2024.

We need to offer something new to newer generations. It is only by acknowledging the collective trauma youth have inherited and ensuring that our voices are integral to the discussions shaping our future that we will be able to look forward with excitement.

—Jose Caballero, Class of 2026, Columbia University

Rick Yang headshot
Rick Yang

Young people in the U.S. are increasingly connected to each other. But they’re also less happy than in the past. It’s becoming apparent that interconnectedness alone does not erase our vulnerability to mental illness. Instead, this new connectivity appears to amplify insecurity by too often exposing youth to intense scrutiny, unrealistic standards, and constant comparison.

The rise of social media has transformed the way my generation interacts with our peers and perceives ourselves. Excessive feedback and comparison-seeking pervades our digital age. Young people continually gauge their self-worth through likes, comments, and followers.

I’ve seen my friends spend hours and hours after school and late at night repeatedly altering and re-posting photos to maximize likes. If the post didn’t perform “well,” they would, in turn, feel inadequate. If it did perform well, whatever gratification came was fleeting, relative to the suffering they endured in the opposite scenario. Collectively, these behaviors exacerbated feelings of isolation and anxiety—taking a toll on their mental health and overall well-being.

Rather than suggesting young people are growing unhappier, maybe our definitions of happiness have been altered by the toxic brew of relativity created by hordes of influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These people are bronzed, wrinkleless, filtered, cut, and trimmed to perfection, skewing our perceptions of what happiness looks like.

The report may serve as a source of hope. It highlights a crucial yet often overlooked method for combating unhappiness among youth by promoting policies and practices that can mitigate the negative impacts of online environments. For example, schools can implement digital literacy lessons on managing digital footprints and recognizing the curated nature of social media content. They can also teach students coping strategies for times when the stress of media stimuli is overwhelming.

—Rick Yang, Class of 2024, Scarsdale High School

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Lead image: calvindexter / iStock

Headshots: Courtesy of Sophie Szewp, Cynthia Yue, Jose Caballero, and Rick Yang

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