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U.S. drops in new global happiness ranking. One age group bucks the trend

The U.S. ranks higher in the world happiness report when it comes to people aged 60 and older.
Thomas Barwick
Getty Images
The U.S. ranks higher in the world happiness report when it comes to people aged 60 and older.

How happy are you? The Gallup World Pollhas a simple way to gauge well-being around the globe.

Imagine a ladder, and think about your current life. The top rung, 10, represents the best possible life and the bottom rung, 0, represents the worst. Pick your number.

Researchers use the responses to rank happiness in countries around the globe, and the2024 resultshave just been released.

This year, Finland is at the top of the list. Researchers point to factors including high levels of social support and healthy life expectancy, to explain the top perch of several Scandinavian countries.

North America does not fare as well overall. As a nation, the United States dropped in the global ranking from 15th to 23rd. But researchers point to striking generational divides.

People aged 60 and older in the U.S. reported high levels of well-being compared to younger people. In fact, the United States ranks in the top 10 countries for happiness in this age group.

Conversely, there's a decline in happiness among younger adolescents and young adults in the U.S. "The report finds there's a dramatic decrease in the self-reported well-being of people aged 30 and below," says editor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a professor of economics and behavioral science, and the director of theWellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University.

This drop among young adults is also evident in Canada, Australia and, to a lesser extent in parts of western Europe and Britain, too. "We knew that a relationship existed between age and happiness, but the biggest surprise is that it is more nuanced than we previously thought, and it is changing," saysIlana Ron-Levey, managing director at Gallup.

"In North America, youth happiness has dropped below that of older adults," Ron-Levey says. The rankings are based on responses from a representative sample of about 1,000 respondents in each country.

There are a range of factors that likely explain these shifts.

De Neve and his collaborators say the relatively high level of well-being among older adults is not too surprising. Researchers have long seen a U-shaped curve to happiness.

Children are typically happy, and people tend to hit the bottom (of the U) of well-being in middle age. By 60, life can feel more secure, especially for people with good health, financial stability and strong social connections. Living in a country with a strong social safety net can also help.

"The big pressures in life, [such as] having small children, a mortgage to pay, and work, have likely tapered off a bit," De Neve says. But what's so unexpected he says is the extent to which well-being has fallen among young adults.

"We would expect youth to actually start out at a higher level of well-being than middle-age individuals," De Neve says.

"People are hearing that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and the young especially are feeling more threatened by it," says John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and a co-author of the study.

He says many younger people may feel the weight of climate change, social inequities, and political polarization which can all be amplified on social media.

But hope is not lost, Helliwell says.

He points to countries in eastern Europe where levels of well-being are on the rise among young people.

He says the older generations in the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, tend to be less happy. "They are bearing the scars of genocide and conflict," he says.

But he says the younger people are looking beyond this history. "A new generation can put it in the past and think of building a better future and feel that they can be part of that," Helliwell says.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.