Why are old Canadians so happy and young Canadians so unhappy? That’s the story the World Happiness Report (WHR) tells us.

Every year the report is issued by a partnership including Gallup, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The report reflects an interest in measuring something more meaningful in setting government policy than the GDP, all too often the sole criteria for judging a society’s success. According to the WHR website, It “reviews the state of happiness in the world today and shows how the science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness.” The rankings are based on representative samples from each country drawn from how respondents rate their own lives.

At the top of the rankings we find, as usual, the Scandinavian countries. Finland has topped the list for seven straight years—one happy country. Canada not so much. We come in at 15th, which is at least better than our neighbour to the south which has dropped out of the top 20 and is now at 23rd.

Both the North American countries’ rankings are dropping. The reason is our unhappy young people. In the over 60 category, Canadians rank a respectable 8th and the Americans 10th, a fairly content group. But the Canadian under-30s are down at 58th and the Americans at 62nd.

Happiness among the North American youth has been falling sharply since the oughts to the point where the young are now much less happy than the old. John Helliwell, an economist and a co-author of the report, comments, “I have never seen such an extreme change. This has all happened in the last 10 years, and it’s mainly in the English-language countries. There isn’t this drop in the world as a whole.”

The New York Times speaks of “a crisis among America’s youth” and points to a Harvard University study that showed, “Young people reported the lowest levels of happiness compared with other age groups, as well as the poorest mental and physical health, sense of purpose, character, virtue, close social relationships and financial stability. Similar findings have emerged in Britain and Canada.”

Why all the gloom among North American youth? The Times suggests some possibilities.

One likely cause is lives disrupted by the pandemic. Another is the high use of social media. According to Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “There’s been some research that shows that depending on how we use social media, it lowers well-being, it increases rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among young girls and women.” Apparently in-person friendships support happiness while online connections do not.

Young people worry, justifiably, about a future in which the world persists in failing to do what is necessary to deal with global warming. And in the U.S., political polarization, to say nothing about the possible election of Donald Trump, has to be scary.

Youth elsewhere aren’t as troubled even though they share at least some of the challenges. Western Europe has seen less happiness decline among their youth and even increases in some countries such as Austria and Switzerland. Happiness in Central and Eastern Europe has actually been rising to the point where Eastern European youth is now as happy as Western. Maybe young peoples’s expectations are just too high in North America—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all that.

I come back to the Scandinavians. They are supposed to be a gloomy bunch yet they consistently come out tops on the happiness chart. Maybe there’s something to that business of creating an equitable society, after all.

One thought on “What’s with our unhappy youth?”
  1. Unhappy youth?
    I’m going with catastrophic climate change , the 6th great extinction and governments and elders with the morality of pleasure seeking pedophiles who just want to enjoy their money and don’t care who has to die, which species or poor population, for that to happen.
    Zero self control as the consumption and destruction continue.

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