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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Is Unhappiness a Factor in Rising Death Rates Among Middle Aged Whites?

Tonight's Republican Candidates Debate on Fox Business News featured a lot of discussion about how awful things are for the American middle class. Jobs have gone overseas, and the jobs that remain pay less than in the old days. College is expensive and useless. Income inequality is a real problem. The glib answer, of course, is "Let's Make America Great Again!" There was no real discussion of differences by race/ethnicity, but there was a general theme that we're not happy. That message is, in fact, borne out by the analysis of data recently published by one of my SDSU colleagues, psychology professor Jean Twenge. She is the author of "Generation Me", which focused on people born in the 80s and 90s, but this new study looks at Americans of all ages and examines trends in self-reported happiness over time, drawn from the General Social Survey. The title of the paper tells you what she and her co-authors found: "More Happiness for Young People and Less for Mature Adults: Time Period Differences in Subjective Well-Being in the United States, 1972–2014."
Recent adolescents are happier and more satisfied with their lives than adolescents in past decades and generations; how- ever, adults over age 30 are less happy than their predecessors. While adults over age 30 were once happier than young adults aged 18–29, the two groups did not differ in happiness by the early 2010s, and the positive correlation between age and hap- piness found in past eras disappeared by the early 2010s. Similarly, the happiness advantage of mature adults over adolescents has dwindled. Mixed-effects models show that these effects were primarily due to time period rather than generation/cohort. While previous studies of adults found few time period effects in happiness (Yang, 2008), we find that the time trend differs based on age, with opposite trends for young people versus mature adults.
The time period in which happiness declined amongst adults is eerily similar to the time trend in the rise in death rates among middle aged whites from drugs, poisoning, and suicide, as has been discussed a lot since the Case-Deaton was published last week. You can see this for yourself the graph below. Correlation is not causation, but these findings are provocative, you have to admit.

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