Often when I talk about the “deaths of despair” affecting so many young people, I am asked, “why are so many unhappy?” There are a number of reasons, but first let’s discuss how serious this problem has become.
In the US, the suicide rate quadrupled for young men (ages 15-24) and doubled for young women from 1946 to 2006. Another study found that “suicidal thinking, severe depression, and rate of self-injury among US college students more than doubled over less than a decade.”
Dennis Prager suggests that the reasons for such despair can be put into two categories: loss of values and loss of meaning. The loss of values is easy to document in this country. Judeo-Christian values were important in the founding of this country and important in the maintenance of the republic. Also “middle-class values” were important. This would include getting married, making a family, getting a good job, demonstrating self-discipline, and patriotism.
Values were also lost when various communal associations declined. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville explained that the strength of America derived from these professional, social, civil, political, artistic, philanthropic, and religious institutions.
A second reason for despair is lack of meaning. Viktor Frankl in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, reminds us how meaning (or the lack of it) can explain so much about human nature. Poor people can be happy if they have meaning, while rich people who have money, but no meaning, are usually unhappy.
Religious faith can give life meaning. But more and more young people have no connection to religion. The fastest growing demographic among young people are the “nones” (those who define themselves as atheist, agnostic, or no preference).
So many young people today are unhappy because of the loss of values and the loss of meaning.