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Well-Being Among Young Adults is Declining, Harvard-led Study Finds

By Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writer

A Harvard-led team of researchers found that the well-being of young people has declined, relative to 20 years ago, in a study published last month.

The study, entitled “National Data on Age Gradients in Well-being Among US Adults,” was published in the monthly peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Psychiatry. Tyler J. VanderWeele, epidemiology professor at the School of Public Health and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science was senior author of the study.

The report’s results contrast against evidence from the early 2000s, in which life satisfaction surveys produced “U-shaped” curves for well-being domains — with younger adults and older adults showing significantly higher well-being scores than middle-aged adults.

Today, “the left part of the “U” has essentially completely flattened,” VanderWeele wrote in an article for Psychology Today.

The study used online and telephone surveys, as well as U.S. Census data, to assess different domains of well-being, including happiness, health, and financial stability. Its findings show that those aged 18-25 fare the worst of all age groups across multiple aspects of well-being.

The researchers said the findings suggest greater attention must be paid to the many aspects of well-being among young people.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, VanderWeele called the results of his study “pretty striking, pretty disturbing.” Young adults self-reported the lowest physical health and social connectedness of any age demographic, he said.

Though he said the current data is “purely descriptive” and “doesn’t allow [them] to get at causes,” VanderWeele points to economic factors, social media, and political polarization as areas to begin understanding the broader well-being crisis.

“We need to promote relationships and communities; we need to address the financial conditions that young people are facing; we need to help them find systems of meaning,” he said.

“We do need to address mental health issues, questions of anxiety and depression, but just doing that isn’t going to be enough,” he added. “The problem is much broader.”

VanderWeele emphasized that society must take a forward-looking approach to addressing the well-being crisis.

“We need a politics more oriented toward the common good—both oriented toward the common good of the present but also toward the common good of the future, and of future generations,” he wrote in the Psychology Today article. “The well-being of our youth, and the future of our society, depend upon it.”

— Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

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