The over 60s are getting happier, but the young are more miserable. Here's why
The pandemic has been hard on us, but for some age groups more than others.
We may not feel like it, but most of us have endured our first global pandemic surprisingly well, statistically speaking. According to the latest World Happiness Report, there’s been no overall change in ‘positive affect’ – our ability to experience positive emotions.
But there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the previous day. And 22 per cent of us report that our mental health is worse than before COVID-19, with increases in depression and anxiety widespread. So while we may still be able to experience ‘the good stuff’, we’re getting more ‘sad’ too.
One reason is that the physical distancing and isolation needed during the pandemic have compromised our social connections, which are vital for happiness. Many of us have felt lonelier, less connected and less supported than before – all of which makes us less happy.
Young people are falling behind most in the happiness stakes. Many have lost their jobs – according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the young account for nearly two-thirds of job losses since the pandemic started.
Disruption to schools and higher education has been disheartening for many, too. A report by the World Health Organization found that young people in England were among the least happy in Europe prior to the pandemic, but the 2020 Good Childhood Report noted that happiness levels among 10- to 15-year-olds in the UK have fallen further still, with exam pressure and worries about friendships listed as key concerns.
Screen time isn’t helping, despite the amount of time adolescents spend on social media having increased exponentially over the last decade. Time spent on digital media means less time interacting in person. Researchers in the US have found that adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, while those who spend more time on social activities are happier. So a screen-based existence may be a double-edged sword for adolescents during a pandemic.
Women aren’t having a blast, either. We’re more likely to have been furloughed, figures from the ONS indicate, while research by Kantar Public suggests that when schools shut, mothers took on the bulk of home-schooling, often to the detriment of their careers. Women tend to have more friends and socialise more than men – an indicator of wellbeing in normal times that has left many feeling worse during lockdown, as the loss of connection has been felt more keenly according to research from the University of Essex.
The pandemic has also led to more job losses among women, according to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, and the World Happiness Report connects becoming unemployed during the pandemic with a 12 per cent drop in life satisfaction. We may be out of lockdown (for now), but the social and economic implications of the pandemic will be felt for years to come – especially by women.
Is anyone getting happier?
Well, yes: the over 60s, according to latest World Happiness Report. They were significantly less likely to report having health problems than in previous years, despite being the age group most at risk from COVID-19. They also showed a significant increase in the perception of having someone to count on, suggesting that – for them, at least – Zoom calls scratched the social itch. The over 60s were also the first group vaccinated, so have been able to get out earlier than most.
In short, the wellbeing of the over 60s has risen significantly, especially relative to those in middle age. This shouldn’t be a total surprise, since our lives typically follow a U-shaped curve, where happiness peaks at either end but troughs in our 40s. Economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald started noticing patterns in life satisfaction studies in the 1990s and have now proven that contentment declines during adulthood and hits rock bottom in our 40s, before rising again.
It’s often assumed that this dip is due to the burdens of middle age: job stress, money worries and caring responsibilities. But researchers have seen the same trend in chimpanzees, suggesting that the pattern is rooted in biological or evolutionary factors. One theory is that we and our chimp cousins need higher levels of wellbeing during life stages when we have fewer resources, such as youth or old age.
Another idea is that as we age and time horizons grow shorter, we invest in the things that are most important to us – such as relationships – and so derive greater pleasure from them.
Helen is a journalist and author of How To Be Sad and The Atlas of Happiness.