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The 'happiness' advantage to adults 30 and older appears to have vanished
Adults 30 and older have enjoyed a "happiness" advantage over younger adults. But that appears to no longer be the case. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Adults 30 and older have enjoyed a happiness advantage compared to young adults and teens until recently. Now a study shows that an increase in teen happiness is closing that gap.

In fact, a team led by the researchers at San Diego State University say that happiness is changing on both fronts: The over-30 crowd is not quite as happy as it used to be. And younger adults and teens are happier than they have been in the past.

Overall, one-third of American adults describe themselves as "very happy," the report indicated.

The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The research team, which also included social scientists from Florida Atlantic University and University of California Riverside, looked at data from a nationally representative sample of 1.3 million Americans between the age of 13 and 96 over a span of years from 1972 to 2014.

They said adults over 30 were happier before 2010, compared to the younger folks. But age and happiness are no longer linked, nor are the older adults significantly happier than those 18 to 29. In the early 1970s, 38 percent of the older adults described themselves as "very happy." In 2010 that dropped to 32 percent. Meanwhile, 28 percent of teens and younger adults were happy in the 1970s, a figure that has climbed to 30 percent in the 2010s.

"Our current culture of pervasive technology, attention-seeking and fleeting relationships is exciting and stimulating for teens and young adults, but may not provide the stability and sense of community that mature adults require," lead research Jean M. Twenge, author of "Generation Me," said in a press release from San Diego State.

In the studied time period, teens gained the most happiness ground, with 19 percent of high school seniors describing themselves as "very happy" in the 1970s and 23 percent this decade.

"American culture has increasingly emphasized high expectations and following your dreams things that feel good when you're young," Twenge said. "However, the average mature adult has realized that their dreams might not be fulfilled, and less happiness is the inevitable result. Mature adults in previous eras might not have expected so much, but expectations are now so high they can't be met."

The researchers told Time magazine that cultural shifts toward individualism may favor adolescence, a time of self-focus. The weakening of social ties (such as the lower marriage rate), economic circumstances such as the Great Recession and growing income inequality may also have a larger impact on adults than on adolescents.

The researchers said both men and women over 30 had reported decreases in their happiness, but younger men and blacks were more likely to report greater happiness than were younger women or those of other races.

The Associated Press examined possible reasons for growing happiness in one group, but not another, quoting Washington University psychologist Tim Bono about a "rude awakening" that has hit some of the 30 and older adults. The article referred to his discovery of participation trophies and old papers, assignments and notes that it said emphasized "how special I was and how I could do anything I set my mind to."

"My generation has been bathed in messages of how great we are and how anything is possible for us," Bono told AP, which he noted "can easily lead to disappointment."