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Blame the Phones

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By: Noah Rothman – nationalreview.com

A Gallup survey released on Thursday contains both good news and bad news. First, the good news: If you’re over the age of 60, you’re probably one of the happiest people on earth. According to the pollster’s “World Happiness Report,” which evaluated relative self-reported levels of happiness in 140 countries worldwide, the U.S. ranks in the top ten among senior citizens. And yet, the younger generations cannot say the same. Among Americans aged 30 or younger, happiness has proven elusive. Based on the responses from its youngest cohort, the United States ranks just 62nd in global happiness.

What explains this disparity? Younger Americans inclined toward political activism are quick to cite material considerations. With higher interest rates and low inventory, the prospects for younger potential home buyers are bleak. Health care, food, and utilities are pricey, too, making saving for the future a prohibitive prospect. These factors matter. But if you’re of a certain age, you also recall that America’s youngest working-age citizens have long complained about the same factors contributing to their failure to rise. And yet, self-reported happiness among the youngest generation did not fall off a cliff until recently — recently enough that it coincides with what psychologist Jean Twenge identifies as the main culprit: the rise of digital media and the degree to which it has become inescapable with the advent of the smartphone.

In a 2019 study, Twenge finds that younger people began reporting consistently decreased levels of happiness beginning in 2012, and their satisfaction has declined ever since. That coincides with an increase in young people telling pollsters that they are spending inordinate amounts of their day interacting with screens. “During the same time period that digital media use increased, adolescents began to spend less time interacting with each other in person, including getting together with friends, socializing, and going to parties,” Twenge writes. They get less sleep, spend less time forming durable bonds with their friends and communities, attend fewer religious services, and they even use their phones less as, you know, phones. Instead, they are texting, posting on social media, playing games, consuming online media products, or listening to music with earbuds — all solitary occupations.

“Digital media activities may also have a direct impact on well-being,” Twenge continues, citing “longitudinal and experimental studies” that establish a causal link between “teen depression and smartphones.” “Even if digital media had little direct effect on well-being,” she concludes, “it may indirectly lead to low well-being if it displaces time once spent on face-to-face social interaction or sleep.”

Twenge’s conclusions are intuitive. Her efforts to buttress them with 30 years of social science should mitigate the concerns of those who are prudently leery of monocausal explanations. Indeed, her findings comport not just with the published research but also Gallup’s happiness index.

“Between 2006 and 2010, young people in Northern America and Australia/New Zealand were just as happy as old people,” the firm’s pollsters observed. Indeed, with some exceptions, the same change is observable across the industrialized world. “For example, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain are countries where the old are now significantly happier than the young,” the report continued. “In North America, Australia and New Zealand, life evaluations in 2021-2023 were lowest among the young, rising gradually with age to be highest among the old.”

The cliché maintains that happiness is a state of mind. But clichés are axiomatic for a reason. The pursuit of happiness is a paradox. Those who devote themselves wholly to their own satisfaction are least likely to find it. By contrast, those who find contentment in service — providing for the happiness of others — are most likely to tell pollsters and researchers that they’ve found inner peace. Spending one’s life in psychological isolation and staring into a machine designed to maximize user engagement by bombarding one with negative feedback (and associated calls to action) is an easy way to miss out on life’s joys.

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Source: Blame the Phones: World Happiness Report | National Review