Happy International Day of Happiness? Not if you’re under 30

  • In Western Europe, North America and other regions, wellbeing is falling amongst younger people.
  • We need positive images of a sustainable future to give young people, and of course society as a whole, hope.

Happy International Day of Happiness! In 2013, the UN passed a resolution declaring 20th March, the last day of winter in the northern hemisphere, to be the day when countries reflect on how well they are doing in supporting wellbeing in their populations. Every year since, a coalition of academics – under the leadership of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – publish the flagship World Happiness Report with the latest data from Gallup’s World Poll on wellbeing around the world.

The headline results are based on a question in which respondents are asked to evaluate their life using the image of a ladder, where 0 would be the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life. The pattern has been fairly consistent over the years. Finland has been in top place for the last seven years, typically followed by other Nordic countries, and then high-income countries with decidedly warmer climates such as Australia and New Zealand.

This year, the World Happiness Report takes a deep dive into age patterns for wellbeing. Typically, in established democracies such as in North America and Western Europe, research has demonstrated a consistent U-shape pattern: the youngest age groups were found to have the highest wellbeing, which fell towards middle age, and then rose again, particularly after retirement. But this year’s analysis reveals that this ‘received wisdom’ is starting to turn on its head. In many high-income countries, including Germany, Canada and most of Scandinavia, the under 30s are the least happy group. A similar pattern can be seen in the United States, United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries. For example, the average evaluation amongst under 30s in the US is 6.3 out of 10. Young Americans are now less happy than the average El Salvadorian. In most Western European countries, the old are now significantly happier than the young.

This is serious. There is evidence that this is not just a matter of the ups and downs of life, but rather a generational effect. The Report finds that, even after controlling for life stage and life circumstances, Boomers (born before 1965) have a life evaluation 0.25 points higher than Millennials (1980-1994) and Gen Z (born in 1995 or later). We are producing younger generations that are, for many reasons, less happy than the older generations. Reports suggest that loneliness and mental health problems are greater amongst Gen Z. Parents concur: in the EU, West Asia and North America a third or more parents think that their children will have a worse life than they have. In the EU and West Asia this is a greater than the number of parents who think their children will have a better life than they have.

Climate anxiety is a key element behind this. A recent study found that the vast majority of young people in 10 countries around the world are worried about climate change, with over 45% saying that this worry affected their daily life and functioning. According to the study, young people feel dissatisfied and betrayed by governments’ responses to the crisis. No wonder they are feeling down.


But there is some positive news in the World Happiness Report. Although many of the happiest countries in the world are amongst those most responsible for climate change, there are exceptions. In this year’s report Costa Rica has risen up to 12th happiest spot, having done poorly in previous editions as a result of the pandemic. It’s average score of 7.0 out of 10 is achieved despite the country having a carbon footprint which is half the size of many of the wealthier countries surrounding it in the rankings. It shows that a good life can be achieved with a much less resource-intensive lifestyle.

It’s critical that young people – and everyone else – can maintain the hope that a positive sustainable future is possible. And it is possible – from transforming transport to universal basic services, there is a whole suite of win-win policies that can lead to higher wellbeing and reduced environmental impact. Just take a look at our reports at the Hot or Cool Institute, or others at IDDRI, Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and the Wellbeing Economy Coalition.

On 2nd May, we’ll be launching the latest edition of the Happy Planet Index, which calculates the extent to which countries achieve long and happy lives within environmental limits. We can promise you that the top of the ranking won’t be dominated by Scandinavia (although one Scandinavian country does do very well). Rather, it will reveal that Costa Rica is not the only country bucking the trend. The message is out: Good lives don’t have to cost the Earth. Stay tuned!

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