Dr. Jessica Johnson: Gen Z looks for happiness

The 2024 World Happiness Report, which is a collaboration with Gallup, the Oxford Well-being Research Centre, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and its Editorial Board, found that young Americans under 30 are much more displeased with their lives than adults over 60.

The startling fact about this finding for many was that so many U.S. young adults are unhappy that our country dropped out of the top 20 for the happiest nations and currently sits at 23rd, down eight spots from last year.

U.S. senior citizens in this study ranked America as the “tenth happiest place on earth,” but young adults ranked it 63rd, which shows a huge gap in evaluations of contentment. In an opinion piece for “The Hill,” Tara D. Sonenshine, senior fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, stated that “America is in a period of internal dissonance — not quite decay but something akin to it.”

Internal dissonance is definitely a profound way to describe the despondency many young people are currently battling. I think many adults in the well-over-30 crowd are often baffled that a lot of young people don’t feel as if they are on top of the world in an American culture where youth is celebrated, especially in advertising and entertainment. Their dreams are before them, and their youth gives them a longer cushion with time.

However, the “times” that we are currently living in present very different challenges and social dynamics for young people than previous generations faced. It is well known that researchers continue to point out the negative effects social media has on the mental health and well-being of young adults and teens in Generation Z, those born between 1997 to 2012.

Much of the work of Dr. Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, centers on Gen Z young adults and teens who struggle with their mental health and happiness. In a contributing chapter for the 2019 World Happiness Report, Twenge suggested overall “that Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time” and provided data on how Gen Z adolescents and young adults “who spend more time on digital media are lower in well-being.”

What I have learned from my English composition students who have written research essays on the effects of technology use on their generation supports these findings. This semester some of my students have shared personal testimony of how they and their siblings have been bullied online through TikTok and Instagram.

In their final research presentations, some of my female students touched on body dysmorphia that affects young women comparing themselves to influencers, and one student brought out an insightful viewpoint that more life dissatisfaction among Gen Zers is often due to feeling depressed about someone else’s “highlight reels” on social media.

My students did concur that not all technology is bad because how people use it must be taken into consideration, and Twenge explains that digital media use associated with feelings of dispirited well-being is correlational and cannot be solely blamed for unhappiness.

Since so many young adults and teens are unhappy, we need to direct them more in pursuing joy in their lives. Young people express that they want to be happy and content, which is a good thing, but happiness, as defined on the Embark Behavioral Health blog, is “typically a more fleeting emotion, often sparked by a particular moment or event that brings a sense of excitement or exhilaration.”

The blog labels joy as a “more long-lasting state of being.” Scripture also emphasizes this as joy is expressed as a buttress for our souls. Romans 15:13 states that God will fill us with “all joy and peace in believing” so that we “may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” Another favorite “joy verse” of mine is Nehemiah 8:10, which designates God’s joy as our strength and stronghold.

In many Bible verses, you will find joy and peace paired together. It’s a covenant promise that joy ensures peace will abound through life’s most trying storms, a lesson that growing older has taught me. I truly believe that abundant joy is needed to lift young people out of the “internal dissonance” phase that Sonenshine describes.

It is evident that fleeting moments of satisfaction that they are desperately seeking online or through other outlets will not sustain them.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.