Written by : Transcript – How Happiness is Changing in the U.S. With Dr. Lara Aknin 

Transcript – How Happiness is Changing in the U.S. With Dr. Lara Aknin

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: How Happiness is Changing in the U.S. With Dr. Lara Aknin




[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 461 of Live Happy Now. Last week, the annual World Happiness Report was released. This week’s guest is helping break down what it all means.


I’m your host Paula Felps. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Lara Aknin, a distinguished professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University and one of the editors of the World Happiness Report. She’s here to tell us why the US fell out of the top 20 happiest countries for the first time since the report has been published, which age group is thriving in the US, and talk about why our young people are struggling right now. She also shares some really encouraging findings about well-being and dementia, as well as how benevolence is changing worldwide. Let’s have a listen.




[00:00:49] PF: Lara, thank you for joining me today on Live Happy Now.


[00:00:53] LA: Thank you for having me.


[00:00:54] PF: Every year, this is such a big time for us because the World Happiness Report comes out. We dig into it, and we try to cover it the best that we can. So I appreciate you sitting down and talking about it. How long have you been involved in working with the report?


[00:01:08] LA: I have been involved for about five years now, back in 2019 I believe it was. My memory since COVID is a little fuzzy, but I believe it was 2019. My colleagues and I contributed a chapter to the World Happiness Report on some of the research we do regarding kindness and happiness. Then shortly after that, I was invited to join the editorial team.


[00:01:28] PF: Nice, nice. Such an important report and we learn new things every year. For those who don’t know, the report has certain themes it covers every year. Then it’ll kind of branch out and do other subtopics every year. One thing they talked about this year was age and happiness. I wanted to know if you had any insight into why they decided to look at that topic.


[00:01:53] LA: There are lots of reasons. One major one is that there’s this burst of new research looking at some really interesting ideas and questions. So you’ll see one of the chapters in this year’s report written by Dr. Emily Willroth and her colleagues, I think, presents some of this really groundbreaking research, trying to understand not necessarily actually the predictors of happiness across the lifespan but the consequences of happiness for really important outcomes like dementia.


Their chapters kind of split broadly into two parts, but one of the parts that I find so intriguing and then so excited about is how happiness or life satisfaction and well-being might be a protective factor against dementia. As a huge subset of the population is aging, all of us eventually, hopefully will. There’s no known cure for dementia. This seems like one very important meaningful way in which we can intercept and perhaps improve the lives for many people.


The new research is one key reason that it was – we chose to focus on this year’s report on aging and happiness. But the other is the availability of data. One of the main sources, one of the incredible sources of information we draw upon for the World Happiness Report is the Gallup World Pole, which for those listeners who don’t know is probably the most representative sample of planet Earth. So it’s not just convenient samples drawn from wealthy nations, but it’s individuals from rich and poor countries. They go out of their way to reach those who we might not be able to reach otherwise.


Now, there are almost two decades worth, I believe, of data that allow us to look back and see these not only trends in happiness over time but allows us to try to tease apart some of the cohort effects from age effects, which is really exciting and promising for getting a closer look into what’s going on in happiness across the lifespan.


[00:03:38] PF: They touched on so many different things. As an editor, I wondered if there was anything that stood out to you about age and happiness on a global sense, as you were working on the project.


[00:03:49] LA: Yes. There are a couple notable findings, and the report is so rich with so much information. I encourage your listeners to go have a look. There’s so much to be seen. But two things that jump out at me that I think are kind of remarkable across the data sets and the information presented is, first and foremost, that around the world looking at global data, the happiness is highest among the young, so those under 30. Then begins to drop and remains relatively consistent over the rest of one’s life. Now, that’s looking at global data, which is really interesting.


But get a little bit more interesting and sometimes unfortunate when you drill down into specific world regions. One that I think might be of particular interest to perhaps many listeners is that in North America, particularly in Canada and the United States, the young have started rating their life satisfaction quite a bit lower. In fact, it is one of the only world regions in the world where the young are less happy than the old. That is kind of an interesting point of complexity and intrigue and, for many, I imagine some concern. That is one fascinating finding.


[00:04:54] PF: I was completely astonished to see that because in our case of people under the age of 30 in the US ranked 62nd. To put that in perspective, Russia is 68th. Young people in Russia are not that much more unhappy than young people in the US. Do we know what is driving that?


[00:05:16] LA: That is a really important question. It’s a complex answer, as you might imagine. But, yes, if I can just pause and highlight what I think is so noteworthy here, which is that, yes, within the United States, older individuals, so those 16 above, are rating their lives much better. I believe there’s over a 50 ranking gap between older adults in the United States compared to those under 30. There’s something pretty unique going on here with the younger individuals.


Why is this going on is a difficult thing to kind of parse, right? These data sets, the complexity and the size of them give us a huge snapshot of what is going on. But the challenge of that is that there are so many moving pieces. It’s hard to pinpoint one exact explanatory feature. That being said, some of the authors of chapter two in the report, Dr. John Helliwell and Haifang Huang have done some deep dives to try to understand what’s going on. There’s a little bit of traction in understanding.


In particular, what these two and their co-authors have found is that adults under 30, so Americans under 30, are reporting some interesting differences to compare to those who were 30 several decades ago, so those who were 30 in the early 2000s and up to 2010. In particular, those under 30 these days are reporting less support from their friends and family than did earlier cohorts. They’re also reporting less freedom to make life choices, more stress and anxiety, but not more anger, less confidence in the government, greater perceptions of corruption. Another important one is feeling less satisfied with their living situation.


I think although incomes are not necessarily especially low, I think they’re stagnating relative to the cost of living. So that might be a point of frustration or stress and anxiety for some younger Americans under 30. It seems to be this cocktail of predictors that are associated with lower levels of well-being among those under 30 and different from those that were reported about a decade and a bit ago.


[00:07:23] PF: At the same time, those young people are – the report shows that those young people are more benevolent. They’re more altruistic, which is so interesting that they would be dissatisfied because one thing we talk about quite a bit on Live Happy Now is how – and you would know this about practicing kindness and acts of altruism. Those increase our satisfaction. That, to me, was just a striking disparity that we have this generation that’s more giving, more altruistic, but they’re also more dissatisfied.


[00:07:56] LA: Exactly. That was going to be my other notable thing. It’s always a silver lining for me. Or a really fascinating spotlight in the report is this increase, this upshoot in benevolence, especially since COVID, since pre-COVID years. You’re right. Across all three metrics of benevolence that are captured in the Gallup World Poll data, which is helping a stranger, donating to charity, and volunteering. Each of these are relatively high across the board. They’re higher post-COVID than they were before COVID. There don’t seem to be whopping generational differences in this. If anything, we’re seeing the young being equally, in most cases, benevolent across the board. They’re more likely to help a stranger and less likely to donate. That might be partially because they just have lower levels of income.


But you’re right. Benevolence doesn’t seem to be the explanatory factor. One might wonder if this is even buffering or supporting their well-being that these differences reported might be even more extreme if these weren’t the actions people were taking. I just want to point out, though, that those benevolence ratings are global, and the findings that we’re talking about here are within the United States. So I don’t know exactly the benevolence levels within the United States, but that would be an interesting question to drill down upon.


[00:09:07] PF: The report does an excellent job of parsing out this information, but what it doesn’t do and intentionally is say, “Here’s the cure.” We get a lot of information, and I think that’s what a lot of us want to know is like, wow, if our young people are that unhappy, what is it that we can do about it? As you mentioned, there are several factors driving this, so it’s not this small ship that we can just turn on a dime. As people who are not in our 30s and younger, what do we do? How do we start helping support young people and changing the way that they feel?


[00:09:45] LA: That’s a really important question. Like you say, I don’t know if there’s a perfect solitary answer to this. I think there’s a lot to be considered in part because some of these may be societal changes, right? Concerns, for instance, about less freedom to make life choices and concerns about corruption and less trust in government would be hard for any caring friend or family member to interject upon and maybe change things. It’s possible perhaps that there might be other pathways that are a little bit more tractable, so for instance, the support from friends and family.


Interestingly, I believe some of the data suggest that these individuals are not necessarily receiving less contact, if you will, from friends and family but perhaps feel like they’re not receiving enough. Or at least they’re less satisfied with the support from friends and family. One perhaps avenue or strategy for support might be to have some very open conversations with the younger adults in your life and kind of see how they’re doing. Perhaps find ways to offer additional support. There might be other factors.


I mean, it’s hard to support someone’s satisfaction with their living conditions. I mean, that’s not an easy way to just step in and change. Some of these may be more systematic or societal-level concerns. I’m not saying that this is out of our reach, but I think there’s a lot of conversation to be had about which ways to kind of step in and support adults under 30.


[00:11:09] PF: Do you think knowing this that now we are going to do that, now that we are aware of this situation is becoming more dire? Do you think there’s a community starting with a scientific community that shares this information? Then are we going to start saying, okay, we need to enact some change, some real change in the world to make this better?


[00:11:28] LA: I remain overoptimistic. I think one of the main thrusts and the rationales for the World Happiness Report is to present some of this leading evidence on the science of happiness to the public and also to policymakers and individuals who are concerned about the well-being of their constituents and their community members and their neighbors. The hope is that by bringing some hard science to this question to delineate and demonstrate the trends over time and shine a spotlight on those who perhaps are not thriving or doing as well as we would have hoped can direct attention to those areas.


There’s always a lot of discussion. There are many governments that are trying to pay attention to these well-being reports. I know many governments are starting to ask these questions regarding life satisfaction and well-being in their census data. I think that’s a step in the right direction. But as you’ll see in chapter I believe it’s three of this year’s report, which is focused on the youth, there is actually not as much data as we would like to grapple with some strong insights, especially in developing nations.


A lot of the evidence is lacking, and so that raises some questions about how people who perhaps are really struggling are not even being assessed and observed. I think that we’re certainly making strides, but I think we’re far from perfect data and perfect insights on how to address this.


[00:12:41] PF: I think that’s one thing the World Happiness Report does is every year, we talk about it. Then it’s in the spotlight. It’s in the news. Then it kind of, uh, slips out. That’s why I love the fact that it comes out every year. It doesn’t let us forget that, hey, we still have – this is an important thing. Happiness is an important indicator, and we need to be studying it, looking at it, and figuring out what’s going on in our world.


[00:13:05] LA: I think it’s important because happiness isn’t just the absence of negative emotions. It’s more than that. I think there’s – as chapter four in this year’s report nicely illustrates, these protective factors matter a lot. It’s not just this wishy-washy vague sense of well-being that we can hope for, but that it matters for some of these really consequential outcomes, even beyond the fact that we care about our own and our neighbor’s well-being. It predicts some really mean meaningful hard outcomes. I think it helps, like you say, shine a spotlight on some of these important pressing issues.


[00:13:37] PF: We’ve talked about the not-so-great news with the young people but great news with the boomers. US is number 10 among the age group, the baby boomer age group for happiness. That’s incredibly good news. That means we’re doing great in terms of people, what is that, from 1964?


[00:13:55] LA: Yes. I think it – yes. I think you’re right. I think you’re right. I think it’s 1964. Yes.


[00:14:01] PF: Why? Why?


[00:14:03] LA: I think we know less about that. I mean, part of it is I think although objectively boomers have, I think, less in the way of social contact, I think that there is a greater satisfaction with it. That is one memory I have from reading this report multiple times. But I don’t think we have never done a drill down among the older boomers in the United States or even the boomer generation just globally to figure out what is exactly the unique predictors there.


What we do know is that countries that rank highly among the older boomer generation tend to be those that are ranked more highly overall but to be in the top 20 and certainly among the top 10 and 15. I think the United States is an interesting case where the happiness of the young, those under 30, is really [inaudible 00:14:48] the average ranking of the United States because these adults under 30 are reporting significantly lower levels of life satisfaction. Yes, for the first time in a number of years, the United States has dropped out of top 20. I think the boomers are what’s elevating the ranking, but the young are what is dropping it down.


[00:15:06] PF: That’s interesting. When I first started covering this, we were at number 13. Then it was 50. It’s like –


[00:15:13] LA: I mean, we don’t have any measurement of this but some. It might have to do with political tensions or divisions in growing levels of income inequality but also well-being inequality that is mentioned a bit in chapter two of the report. But it is also, I think, those societal, political level factors in the United States might be contributing perhaps especially. Who knows? This remains to be tested. Perhaps might be shifting the well-being of the young or influencing the well-being of the young perhaps more so.


[00:15:43] PF: Well, does what drives happiness in older populations differ from what drives happiness in younger age groups? Is that part of it at all?


[00:15:52] LA: It certainly could be. I don’t think chapter two includes any analyses that would answer that question specifically. I mean, many of the – because it’s a global report with so much data, usually the focus is on looking for commonalities, not differences across the world but also across the ages. But I don’t think there was any analysis that looked at whether, for instance, social relationships was a greater predictor of well-being amongst the old versus the young. That’s a really intriguing question.


There are some interesting psychological theories that might bring to bear on this question. I’m happy to mention them, but I don’t know if it – they weren’t tested directly in the report. So you can let me know if that’s a –


[00:16:31] PF: Yes, go ahead. I’d love to hear it.


[00:16:33] LA: Sure. Laura Carstensen has this really fascinating theory arguing that when we’re young, time seems expansive. Normally, people prioritize these kind of efforts to go out to search for unique new experiences. People prioritize having usually a diverse set of friends, a diverse set of experiences because it’s all about learning and trying new things. It’s like this very exploratory mindset.


Then as people get older and people start to realize that time is not infinite, instead of taking this purely exploratory approach as they navigate the world, they prioritize things that are particularly meaningful and valuable and positive to them. How this matters, for instance, for predictors of happiness but also for relationships might be instead of trying to maintain dozens of different friend groups, people might prioritize these three, four individuals, these three or four networks in their lives that tend to bring them the most joy and meaning and whatever it is they prioritize.


This theory suggests that the predictors of happiness may vary slightly as a function of age. Generally speaking, most people derive a lot of joy from helping others, from being with others. But who exactly are those others may differ, right? When you’re 18 and starting college, that might be trying everything there is. When you’re 75, that might be your closest friends. Social relationships might matter across the lifespan, but who are those contributing individuals might vary.


[00:17:59] PF: That makes so much sense. To me, it was so interesting that this report really focuses a lot on age because when we look at how aging is portrayed like, “Oh, you’re going to be lonely. You’re going to be falling apart,” there are so many messages that’s negative about aging. When you look at this report, it’s really an inspirational read. It shows you that that’s not what is going on. Has that actually changed, or has it just been always portrayed incorrectly?


[00:18:32] LA: It’s important to note it might be inspirational for folks living in North America and Australia, New Zealand, where this trend is happiness generally speaking across the lifespan is on an upward trajectory. But there certainly are world regions where the reverse is true. For instance, in Central and Eastern Europe, I believe that it’s a downward trend across the lifespan. There are some notable differences across the globe.


Different cultures hold aging in different regards, right? In many Eastern cultures, it’s an honor. There’s a lot of honor and respect for the elders, whereas that isn’t necessarily true across all different nationalities and ethnicities and religious affiliations. So perhaps in North America it’s kind of seen like as you get older, you’re out of touch. You’re falling apart. It might be a lot of negative portrayals. But I don’t think that’s always the case worldwide.


But I agree with you. I think certainly from a North American perspective, especially Canada and the United States, the older adults are reporting their lives as much more aligned with their ideal than are the young. That is perhaps inspirational for many people who are in that generation.


[00:19:39] PF: Yes, because we’re all headed in that direction. We want to know it’s getting better, right?


[00:19:44] LA: Hopefully, it’s all getting better. Yes, for sure.


[00:19:47] PF: Well, there’s so much in this report. What is it that you would think that is a takeaway that you hope that everybody would get from sitting down and spending some time with this report?


[00:19:59] LA: Well, I think broadly speaking, I think the report does what I think and perhaps I’m very biased here, but I think it does a really great job of showcasing what I think is some of the best science on the question of happiness around the globe and some of the most cutting-edge interesting findings. Details aside for a second, I think the report, hopefully, is a nice demonstration, is a convincing demonstration of where the science of well-being is at and convinces many people that this is not a floofy self-help grounded literature but rather a hard science where people are able to self-report how they feel about their lives and how scientists can try to understand what are these correlates, and how does it track over time, and how does it differ across age and region. Many important variables that help us give some traction on perhaps how to improve the lives of others.


I hope, big picture, people walk away with an understanding that this is a hard science and one that we can really sink our teeth into and try to improve the lives of many people with. I think two highlights for me in this report are, one, the benevolence finding that we talked about already. I realized that there are some mixed pictures. There’s a lot of nuance in this report. Looking across the world is always difficult with hundreds of thousands of individuals offering their take on their lives. There’s so much data to dig into.


Normally, just looking around the globe is complex and nuanced enough. But now to split it by age group and cohort or generation is even more nuanced. But I think the benevolence finding is one of the clearest cut across the globe, which is that there’s been this increase in benevolence that it’s pretty consistent across the generations. I think while many things can sometimes look a mess in this world and in people’s well-being, this is one very rosy optimistic picture showing that people are in perhaps better – higher than we would assume, looking out for one another and helping their neighbors, helping their communities.


The other finding that I think is really important and worth showcasing is the findings from chapter four, which is on the dementia findings I mentioned earlier, which is just how all of us are, hopefully, getting older. Unfortunately, dementia is one thing that raises significant challenges for many people who are facing these cognitive impairments. But also for their friends and their family who are trying to help these individuals be well and enjoy their lives, even with this very difficult diagnosis. I think there are some really interesting and important information to bring to bear in this year’s report about how well-being and life satisfaction can be a really important protective factor for that.


I just think it raises the stakes for some of the – thinking about some of this research. It’s not just about feeling good, which I think is motivation enough in itself to care about our own and other’s well-being. But I think it really raises concerns about what it is we want in our communities and our societies and how we take care of each other.


[00:22:48] PF: I agree 100%. This was so interesting. Lara, I appreciate you sitting down and talking with me. You really distilled a lot of great information for it. We’re going to tell our listeners how they can find the report, how they can digest it. We’re going to run some things on our website about it. But thank you for making sense of it for us and taking this time with me today.


[00:23:07] LA: My pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.


[00:23:12] PF: That was Dr. Lara Aknin, talking about findings from the World Happiness Report. If you’d like to download a full copy of the report, read additional stories about the findings, or learn more about Lara, just visit us at livehappy.com.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Live Happy Now. If you aren’t already receiving us every week, we invite you to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, feel free to drop us a review and let us know what you think.


That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.


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