The Great Millennial Happiness Crisis

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The Great Millennial Happiness Crisis

In 2018, happiness among young adults in the United States fell to a record low.  The share of those adults ages 18-to-34 reporting that they were “very happy” fell to 25 percent.  That’s the lowest level that the General Social Survey, the most respected barometer of American social life, has ever recorded for that age group. Happiness fell most among young men—with only 22 percent of young men (and 28 percent of young women) reporting that they were “very happy” in 2018.

Researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Lymon Stone of the American Enterprise Institute examined this trend to determine the shifts which contributed to this decline.  These shifts include what The Atlantic has called “the sex recession,” a marked decline in sexual activity for this group in recent years. 

As Wilcox and Stone observe, human beings find meaning, direction, and purpose in and through our social relationships with others.  We’re most happy when our ties with others are deep and strong.  And research tells us that the ebb and flow of happiness in America is clearly linked to the quality and character of our social ties—including our friendships, community ties, and marriages.  And, it’s also linked, specifically, to the frequency with which we have sex. Using the antiseptic language of economics, Wilcox says “sexual activity enters strongly positively into happiness equations.”

Based on this understanding, Wilcox and Stone investigated four indicators of sociability among today’s young adults in an effort to explain the “happiness recession” among today’s young adults.  Those indicators are: marriage, friendship, religious attendance, and sex.  All of these have been shown in prior studies to positively impact happiness.

First, they looked at marriage...

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